Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Kiwi Kristmas

When my parents asked me if I would like to come home for the holidays, I bluntly said “No”. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see my family. It wasn’t that I didn’t want a break from rural island life. I said no because I wanted something else. I told them that I would love more than anything to be with them for Christmas, but I would rather not come home. I wanted to go somewhere new. I wanted to keep the ball rolling on my world adventures and explore a new part of the globe that none of us have ever seen. They jumped at this idea and proposed a big family trip to Tahiti. I promptly shut down this proposal down because a paradise island vacation wouldn’t really be a vacation for me. It would just be a slight change of scenery with better bathrooms. I suggested the idea of going “down under” to check out New Zealand. We all quickly became excited about exploring the scenes from middle-earth and seeing how western civilization has shaped itself down in the southern hemisphere.
            My mom called up an old Kiwi friend, Mary Jane Burnham, and the plans for our trip began to take shape. Mary Jane acted as our travel agent and put together a comprehensive 2-week adventure for us to get a taste of all that North Island New Zealand had to offer. With a little help from grandma, our family scrounged together the funds to make it a reality. My sister Julie and her husband Curtis got time off work, my brother Jim and his new fiancĂ©e Brooke had breaks from school, and my parents along with little Jenna completed our travel group.
            After 8 months of anticipation, the time was finally upon us. I had just wrapped up my arctic expedition through the chilly streets of Seoul and was ready for part 3 of my winter break. The flight on Korea Air was a great segway down to New Zealand. It was the shnazziest plane ride that I have ever been on. I felt like a first class passenger being pampered to my hearts desire. Korean Air has extra large seats and a personal entertainment system with dozens of movies, shows and video games. I dined on airplane food that didn’t have to be choked down purely for sustenance, it was actually tasty! It even came with a glass of wine to compliment the exquisite highflying food. Tasty snacks and endless trays of drinks were offered to me at a rate that was bordering on ridiculosity. Hot towels, slippers and toothbrushes were standard fare. And to top it all off, I had a comfy window seat to snuggle up against for the duration of my 13 hour flight.
            I arrived surprisingly refreshed at Auckland International Airport in the early afternoon on December 22. After an exhaustive immigration process that laboriously checked for anything that would upset the delicate biodiversity of the island, I walked out the airport and quickly found a cheap shuttle to take me into town. By the time I made it to downtown, I was giddy with excitement. I hadn’t seen my family for more than a year and was within minutes of reuniting. My brisk walk turned into a jerking jog as I approached the Chifley Suites Hotel in the center of Auckland. I began to ask the hotel clerk where the Hunter family was staying, but he cut me off in mid sentence and said, “You must be Johnny, your mum has been asking about you”. I shot up the elevator and then did my trademark knock (shave and a hair cut, six bits). I heard shuffling around inside and then grabbed my mom with a big bear hug right as she opened the door. My sweet mother was elated to see me and had been waiting for hours for me to show up at the door.
            We caught up on everything for the next hour as we strolled around the town and asked each other question after question. She stroked my long hair and commented numerous times how she liked the new style, but only when it was pulled back out of my face. We would later discover that she was a huge fan of the “mullet” and urged me to style it into a redneck hairdo (business in the front, party in the back). We were haphazardly searching for a spot to get some food, but we were more concentrated on each other’s company to really care about where we were going. We oriented ourselves towards the ocean and directed our path to the waterside.  As we were heading towards to the ocean, my mom perked up and asked, “ O honey, do you know that girl?”.  I was about to tell her that it was stupid question because I didn’t know a single person in New Zealand, when I glanced up and did see a familiar face. Our longtime family friend, and my future sister-in-law Brooke, was walking on the sidewalk. She was as surprised to see me as I was to see her and we happily exchanged hugs. She pointed us in the direction of a bar where the rest of my family was whetting their whistles, and we hurried our way to O’Hagan’s Irish Pub.
            I spotted the table full of my family in the dense crowd of the outdoor patio. I surreptitiously maneuvered a path and approached them from an angle where they couldn’t see me coming. I hoisted myself up on a barstool at their table and muttered a casual Hello. They turned their heads and burst out in astonished reply of “aha’s” and “woohoo’s”. I drank a round of cider and beer as we cheerily assembled our family clan for the first time in 15 months. I was as happy as I could be, back with the people I love most in this world.
            We stumbled back to the hotel around 6 and everybody quickly fell into alcohol and jet-lag induced naps. We awoke as the sun just began to droop behind the ocean mist that surrounds the harbor. It now seemed like a good time to go grab some dinner and we started to pull ourselves together. What our northern hemisphere mental time clocks didn’t recognize was that it was almost 10pm. Light was still lingering in the sky, but most of the restaurants were shutting their doors for the night. We wandered to 5 or 6 different places before we found a spot that still had their kitchen open. Our family munched on some tasty sandwiches and an unsavory mayonnaise/anchovy soup with soggy greens that was improperly labeled as Caesar salad. We learned two things from this first dinner in New Zealand: eat earlier and never order a Caesar salad.
            The next morning, our real adventures began. We met the Burnham’s at a rental car office and got the Toyota Previa that would house all 8 of us for the next 1000 kilometers of exploration. Our first destination was the world famous Waitomo Glow Worm Caves. However, we were in no hurry and decided to check out the sights along our way.
            The countryside of New Zealand is breathtakingly beautiful, and most of New Zealand is countryside. Rolling hills of green sprawl for miles across a lush expanse of fertile farmland. The silhouettes of distant mountains can be seen along the horizon of cloud spattered blue sky. Cattle and sheep are free to roam this endless landscape of grass and munch on weeds to their hearts delight. Picturesque country farmhouses can be spotted on the corners of vast fenced enclosures.
A simple two-lane highway winds through the hillsides and urges you to take your time and slow down to enjoy the scenery. There is no need to rush when driving through a place like this. The little line of black asphalt is merely a pathway for you to fully experience the nature around you. It’s not a superhighway that serves no purpose other than zipping you to another destination as fast as humanly possible. The little road (which is the actually the main highway on the North Island) perfectly exemplifies the New Zealand lifestyle: simple, strong and relaxed.
The “take our time” mantra that we adopted on the roads was also undoubtedly influenced by the fact that we were driving on the left side of the road for the first time in our lives. Intense concentration and inhibition of natural instincts was necessary to make sure that we kept to the left and didn’t have a head on collision with oncoming traffic. Fortunately the calming environment of unspoiled countryside was enough to counteract the anxiety caused by defying our ingrained rules of the road.
The verdurous pastures speckled with grazing cattle were not the only type of nature for us to gaze upon. Nuggets of thick forest lined the highway and sat atop many of the hills. Our drive alternated between open grassland and delightful woodlands. It was evident from the juxtaposition of forest with farmland that the land had been extensively cleared with the colonization of farm animals. Much of the forest that we did see has been replanted and the trees stand in neat rows. Nonetheless, it wasn’t an ugly or reckless destruction of nature. The change of the natural landscape actually seemed very natural. The forest wasn’t swept away to make way for parking lots or factories, but was instead replaced with oaks and grasses. Although mankind’s hand had made a strong mark on the environment, the Kiwis have maintained a certain air of genuine nature. The country is undoubtedly developed and modern, but it still has a natural charm that can be seen throughout. This is an observation that would be continually reaffirmed as I toured the island and noticed the developmental style of the country. These guys are doing something right.
It was the right kind of atmosphere that I needed to reconcile my mental anguish about the extremes of modernization that I had recently seen in Korea and Micronesia. Chuuk is underdeveloped and suffers in many ways because of it; but it also has the pristine beauty of tropical paradise. Seoul is a megatropolis on steroids and is bursting at the seams with technology and steel; but it has lost its connection with the natural world in exchange for modernity. They both exhibit the pros and cons of our head on race towards technological development and mastery of the planet.
New Zealand appears to have handled the dilemma of development in an admirable manner. The country is efficient and functioning on par with anywhere in the world but it still exudes a feeling of coexistence with nature. The Kiwis haven’t deflowered the beauty of their environment so that they could build a framework of freeways and skyscrapers. They have worked within the bounds of the natural surroundings to create a fully modern society cleverly nestled within their original environment. They deserve a pat on the back for finding a way to successfully meld together the old with the new.
On our driving journey, we swung wide on a detour that led us towards the western ocean. After about an hour more of swerving around green hills, we became a little bit worried that we didn’t really know where we were going. Signs told us that we were only about a mile from Raglan, but there was no ocean in sight. Maybe we were on our way towards the wrong Raglan? Rolling hills covered the landscape and we couldn’t conceive of where the water might lie. Eventually, we rounded a bend and were greeted by a sparkling bay of blue. Despite our wanderings, we made it to Raglan. The town of Raglan sits along the rocky coastline and is famous for being one of the best surf spots in New Zealand.
We parked our car at the Wainui Reserve and walked down a long concrete pathway to the black sand beach below the cliff sides. The spacious beach stretched for miles and was surprisingly empty. We could easily find an open spot to settle down away from the umbrellas and screaming kids of other beachgoers. The miles of soft sand were tinted grayish black because of a rich iron content in the rocks surrounding the area. I thought it was just pounded up lava rocks like I have seen in Hawaii, but I guess I was wrong.
When the sun peeked through the clouds, the sun shone down on us like an oven burner and scorched us in minutes. Then the clouds would float over the face of the sun and the temperature would flip back to cold. Obviously cloudiness means coldness and bright sun means hotness, but the variation was especially pronounced on this particular day at the beach. We were switching from sweatshirts to bare stomachs within minutes.
Julie led the charge into the water, and we crashed our way through the chilly waters. I have become accustomed to room temperature ocean water on the equator, and the Antarctic currents forced me to do a quick retreat from our ocean playtime. We had no towels, so Jim convinced me to sprint down the beach to “air dry” ourselves off. Our feet pattered over the wide flat sand and took us a half-mile down the beach. We climbed atop a giant piece of driftwood that had stranded itself on the shore. A chunk of wood with a red flap of plastic hanging out startled Jim because he thought it was a dog peering over the edge of the mangled log. Upon closer inspection, we were all thoroughly impressed with the uncanny resemblance between this woody knob and a dog’s face. We positioned it appropriately, and left it there to scare the next oncomer.
After eating an oyster, steak, pickled beet, and cheese sandwich we departed from Raglan and drove inland towards Waitomo. On our way, we stopped in a fern forest to see a place called Bridal Veil Falls. We walked along a nicely manicured path through a dense jungle crawling with ferns. New Zealand is famous for its ferns. There is a huge diversity of the prehistoric foliage that is blanketed across the islands. Their palm-like extensions with spore painted undersides are a common fixture of the outdoors.
The first viewing platform was from directly above the falls and we were able to take the perspective of an unfortunate sailor about to plunge over the edge. The tiny stream dripped off the edge of this precipice and expanded in a foamy white line of water that plummeted over 100 feet to the bottom of the pool. The stream ran along a bed of basalt lava rock for most of its duration, but at this junction it made the switch to sandstone. The weak sandstone was eventually worn away by pounding water, but the hard basalt held its place. The result was a magnificent waterfall created by a trickling creek.
We walked down the wooden pathway to 3 other viewing platforms. It was set up so that we could see the falls from all different angles. My favorite spot was not actually from the top or bottom, but rather from a side view that gave a full scope of the cascading falls. I stared at the milky flow and tried to track the progress of a single water drop. As it poured over the side, the water was in one large smooth blanket, just like when you pour form a pitcher. About half way down, the droplets of water break apart and create an illusion of scattered arrow points darting downwards. By the time it reaches the bottom, the water is nothing but spraying mist that flutters off in all directions.
We arrived in Waitomo in the late afternoon and checked into the prestigious Glow Worm Motel. Well, maybe prestigious was an overstatement. We were given a run down spot at the back of the lot that smelled like dirty socks and moldy underpants. It was decorated in about 1976 and they decided to keep the orange/brown carpets and sheet covered couches to maintain a certain retro appeal. It was grungier than my cockroach infested college apartment and smelled worse than a hobo’s cardboard box, but hey, it was only for one night. We talked to girls into sticking it out for the evening and went out to grab a few beers to tide them over.
Our motel manager Chris gave us a great description of the surrounding area and threw out a few ideas for some things we could do in the waning hours of the evening. So we piled into the minivan and went out for some more adventures. On our way to the main road, Curtis slammed on the breaks and stopped us next to a large fenced off field. Standing on its two long legs 10 feet from our car was a gangly ostrich. The humungous flightless bird craned its neck around the post for a moment, then returned to its job of munching grass. We looked up and noticed a whole group of ostrich’s bobbing their awkwardly tiny heads around as they galloped through the field.
The area around Waitomo was thicker with forest and seemed to be at a higher elevation, but the general landscape of rolling hills was still the norm. We worked our along a road for about an hour that curved its way through the grassy timberland. We finally came to a sign that said Marikopo Falls and jumped out to see how this waterfall compared to our first encounter early that day. We took another 10-minute walk through fern infested foliage before coming to the sightseeing platform. This waterfall was only half as tall, but it was 10 times as wide as Bridal Veil Falls. Its white waters bounced off the black rocks and dribbled down to the waiting river below. We marveled at the creativity of Mother Nature for a bit, snapped some pictures, and took off back on the road.
Another side trip awaited us a few minutes down the road. A natural arched limestone bridge stretched across the river and provided a fascinating geological spectacle to inspect. It used to be a huge cave, but the roof collapse and only the thin line of limestone remained to span the gap across the water. After passing underneath the bridge we came upon a field of verdant grass and blooming flowers. The girls frolicked out into the meadow and pranced around in carefree joy. They twirled under the pink sunset, sang songs of happy-go-lucky nonsense and laughed spontaneously. Curtis was so enthralled by the idea of joining them in their frolicking freedom, that he charged full speed into the meadow. With his heart alight with excitement, he romped in the meadow towards the outstretched arms of Julie. After about 20 yards of cavorting in the grass, he sunk knee-deep into a muddy bog! His boyish dreams of skipping through a meadow were dashed in a moment by the ill placed swampy puddle that stopped him in his tracks. He trudged out of the muck and slunk back to car with brown mud caked on his legs….his days of romping in meadows might very well be over.
By the time we got back to the sleepy town of Waitomo, the sun had gone down and it was past 10pm. There were only two restaurants in town and the first one was already closed, so our anxiety about eating Easy-Mac in our stinky motel began to creep on us. Fortunately, we were able to sneak in as the last customers to a place called the Huhu. The Huhu ended up being a deliciously wonderful restaurant that served us succulent lamb and pan-seared salmon. The meal was exquisitely tasty, but this night of dining will be remembered for something far more important.
A few years ago, my dad read a book that discussed how hard apple cider used to be the most popular alcoholic beverage in America, but has since declined into obscurity and lumped into the same category as wine spritzers and Smirnoff Ice. This book talked of early Americans (man, woman and child) drinking gallons of the sweet alcohol on a daily basis. John Adams practically lived on the stuff and it stood atop the hierarchy of beverages in colonial America. In the 1800’s, people finally figured out how to mix a batch of good beer and the sudsy brews of our modern area quickly replaced cider. Our family tasted all the types of ciders that we could get our hands on, and picked Hornsby’s Hard Apple Cider as the king. My dad and I began to buy the stuff at a stupidly fast pace and single-handedly changed the stocking policy of our local liquor store. More Hornsby’s! Since that time, our obsession with cider has slipped away slightly but we are still on a search for the finest alcoholic apple juice in the land.
The waiter came up to our table at Huhu’s and asked for our drink orders. My dad was struck with wonder at the large selection of hard cider on the menu and excitedly asked the man, “what cider do you recommend?”. A confused look came over the waiter’s face, and he stammered, “Well….I don’t drink the stuff, but my girlfriend likes the raspberry mix”. We all burst out into incessant laughter and snickered at the disdainful reaction of the waiter to a potential cider order by a grown man. My father swallowed his pride, and decided to drink a cider anyways. He chose one called Scrumpy’s because he just liked the name.
The decision to order a Scrumpy’s Hard Apple Cider at Huhu Restaurant would turn out to drastically alter the course of our vacation…and possibly our lives. Scrumpy’s had everything we had been searching for in a quality cider. It wasn’t too sweet (the most common problem with ciders). It went down smooth. It almost tasted like champagne. But most importantly, it was 8.2% alcohol. It packed a punch that embarrassed most beers and tasted like ambrosia of the gods. Its tastiness along with its alcoholic power would prove enlightening and devastating as our trip wore on.
In addition to the pleasant intoxication that Scrumpy’s provided, it also lent itself to be used as a versatile adjective. My family members, me especially, have a tendency to take words and overuse them in all possible ways in all possible contexts. A single word can mean anything we want it to mean. The word “Scrumpy” became one of these words. Eventually after much usage, we came to general consensus about the word’s definition. It is an antonym of Chifley. I cant tell you exactly what either of these words truly mean, but they work off each other in harmonious unison to describe anything and everything about our universe.
The following morning we woke up early and set out for the Waitomo Glow Worm Caves. Blackwater rafting in glowworm caves was probably the number one thing that I have fantasized about in New Zealand. I had heard stories of spelunking through mysterious caves and being awestruck by the millions of sparkling lights that shine through the darkness of the underground shafts. It is something that can only be done in one place in the entire world, and we were there.
The activity is called blackwater rafting, as opposed to whitewater rafting, because the water is black. Well its not actually black, but when you are 100 feet below the earth’s surface in a subterranean crack, everything is black. We squeezed on thick wetsuits and put on a miner’s helmet with a waterproof light. After a short drive through the woods, we stopped by a small stream and went through a little tutorial about our upcoming cave experience. Each one of us grabbed an inner tube (a patched up truck tire) and learned how to properly jump off waterfalls when the time arrived.
The guides gave us three critical rules to follow. Number 1: Don’t pee in your wetsuit. Number 2: Don’t die. Number 3: Don’t pee in your wetsuit. With that sagacious advice under our belts, we were ready to go on a head first plunge through slippery caves into the depths of the earth.
The entrance to the cave was not what I imagined it might be. I was expecting a wide mouthed cave with “Disneyland rock” adorning the sides and a shiny sign with the mascot Glowy the Glowworm welcoming me to my doom. It was nothing like that. We walked through the forest and came to a small hole in the ground where the little stream trickled down. The crack in the blackened stone was only about 2 feet wide and 6 feet high. It didn’t have a nice walkway to lead us in, but rather slimy rocks and a foreboding descent into darkness. We tossed our tube down the hole and then shimmied our bodies through the narrow crevice and down into the darkness below.
We plopped into the icy water and began our journey through this bizarre underground world. The majority of our expedition was spent floating in tubes, but we also were required to scamper along wet rocks and traverse slippery sides to make progress through the natural tunnel. I am an able-bodied individual, but it was still quite difficult to keep my balance through the rushing water and sopping stones. This adventure was not for the faint of heart. I was glad to have a helmet.
At one point, the roof of the cave lowered and lowered until it was necessary to lay prostrate on your back and move along with your nose practically touching the cave top. There was less than a foot of air space between the water and roof. I don’t think an NFL lineman could have squeezed through this tapered passageway. There were a few other walking spots where we had to slide sideways through the cracks in the rock and duck under the stalactites that poked down from the ceiling. Twice we stopped at a ledge, turned backwards, and leapt off waterfalls to the flowing stream below. With all this maneuvering and tube navigating, it was a great adventure even without the glowworms. But that’s what we really came for, the glowworms.
The glowworms of Waitomo actually aren’t glowworms. They aren’t even worms at all. The thousands of tiny lights twinkling on the cave ceiling have been dubbed glowworms because it sounds exotic and special, but the reality is not quite as romantic. The glowing dots in the cave are really the larvae of flies. Well, kind of. These tiny gnat flies are born with no eyes and reproductive organs that are more than 50% of their body mass. So being blind and well-endowed, they tend to do little else except procreate. After doing the deed, the fly drops dead and leaves its eggs stuck to the cave ceiling. The egg turns into a larvae and then feeds off the bacteria slime on the rocks. The digested waste of the larvae squeezes out of the backside and eventually builds up into a stringy substance that hangs from the top of the cave. That stringy larvae poop just so happens to glow in the dark. So in actuality, the “glowworms” are the “poopy strings of blind fly larvae”.
Regardless of what the glowworms really are, they are damn cool. These little buggers encrust the upper surface of the cave and give the illusion of a sparkling night sky. They look like twinkling stars speckled across a clear black sky. If you for some reason were knocked out, kidnapped and placed down in this cave; you might wake up and think you had just dozed off in a little canyon. I am glad that I got to see the glowworms under better circumstances, but my point is that it really did look like a night sky.
We weaved through the dark tunnels and marveled at the shiny dots for almost two hours before emerging into the daylight. We made it safely through Rurakuri Cave and once again stood on the top of earth’s surface. It was an unbelievably weird experience that will probably never be repeated again in my life. Its one of those things that will be able to top anybody’s story about seeing something crazy out in nature. My dream of blackwater rafting through the glowworm caves can now be checked off my list.
We were rather exhausted after our cave exploration and crawled into the car for our drive towards Taupo. Lake Taupo is the dead center of the North Island and carries a few notable distinctions. It is the largest lake in the entire Southern Hemisphere. Its about a mile deep and has a 26 mile diameter. And its relatively new in geological terms. However, it didn’t become a new lake in the same way that most large lakes have come to life since the advent of human built damns and water redirection.
Lake Taupo is a giant volcanic crater. This immense circular caldera was created in 186 AD when a volcano blew its load and spewed ash all over the planet. There are records of the debris reaching all the way to China and significantly altering the world’s weather patterns. Its power dwarfed any other volcanic eruption in recorded human history and makes the Krakatoa explosion look like a spitball. After rattling the earth and shooting its rocky matter into the atmosphere, the lava cooled and left a monumental empty swimming pool. The giant circular depression left by the eruption was eventually filled in with melted snow and water flowing off the neighboring mountains. Today all we see is the smooth blue waters of Lake Taupo.
Our residence for the holiday season was a beautiful house on the northeastern shore of the lake. The eight of us were easily accommodated in this spacious compound with 2 kitchens, 4 bathrooms and a lukewarm Jacuzzi. From our porch, you could peer through the thin tree leaves and see the wide expanse of sparkling water. A carefully manicured lawn was partially enclosed by a line of bushes that separated us from the short cliff side descent into the lake. We were comfortable as could be and happy to call this place home for the holidays.
For Christmas Eve dinner, we accepted an invitation to go across the lake and spend our evening with the Burnhams. The Burnhams abode was in an even more spectacular location and had a hillside view high above the lake. We sipped on fine wines and enjoyed the marmalade skies shimmering off the sapphire surface of the lake. Our bellies were filled with hearty meats and tasty treats. As nighttime crept upon us and our inhibitions became cloudy with fermented grapes, we picked up a chorus and began singing Christmas carols. The house was soon booming with the off-key sounds of “Silent Night” and “Rudolph the Rednose Reindeer”. Our discordant voices echoed off the walls and blended together into a mellifluous melody of Christmas cheer. We worked our way through an entire booklet of songs before retiring to our final glass of wine and saying our goodbyes.
The next morning was Christmas! Although I am more than 25 years old, all of my Christmases before shipping out to Micronesia had been performed in a delightfully childish manner. Thanks can be given to the presence of a little sister and a set of loving parents. Each morning, the kids would awake and sit atop the staircase awaiting our cue to sprint down the stairs and see what Santa had brought us. We would burst into the living room and find huge piles of toys, games, clothes, and a million other things that we jotted down on our Christmas list. Each of us kids has a stocking that could reach the thigh of Shaq, and it is always stuffed to the brim with tiny goodies to surprise us. Long after all us came to the shocking realization that Santa Claus was actually a farce put on by our guileful parents, we still upheld this silly tradition and happily enjoyed the heaping stacks of presents each Christmas morning.
This year, our antipodean celebration lacked most of our Christmas traditions, but it did have the most important one: family. Being together as a family is the best part of the holidays and it had a particularly special meaning for me this year. The previous Christmas was the first one in my lifetime that I spent away from siblings and parents, and I was overjoyed to be back in their company for this holiday.
 I am a lucky fellow because I have a family that I actually enjoy being around. Many people must grit their teeth and swallow their animosity at the holidays in order to put on a smiling face for their troublesome brother, nagging mother and crazy uncle. Fortunately for me, I have none of those. My family is cool. I have fun when I am around them. Its not a task to spend time with the folks. We all get along great and have no serious issues with each other. Spending a couple of weeks in intimate proximity with each other might have been slightly trying on the nerves of the girls, but overall we were one big happy family.
After a relaxing morning of lounging around eating eggs benedict and fruit salad, Tom showed up at our lakeside doorstep with his motorboat and offered to take us for a spin around the lake. We slathered up with sunscreen, pulled on bathing suits and set out for a little time on the water. When you think of Christmas time transportation, the thought of sleigh rides through fluffy snow often comes to mind. Well it was summer time in New Zealand; so our sleigh was replaced with a speed boat and the snow was replaced with water. Our summery Christmas tour was overseen by a blazing orb of happiness that showered its warmth upon us. With the wind in our faces and the sun on our backs, we zipped around the lake and took the time to enjoy the full scenic beauty of the lake. Blackened rock faces topped with flourishing vegetation lined the banks of the lake and undulating hills of green spread as far as the eye could see.
On the far southern side of the lake; we could spy snow-capped peaks lined with a brim of white clouds. Whenever I see a mountaintop, something inside of me stirs and beckons me towards the summit. I get an urge to scale its slopes and triumph in the majestic glory that awaits me with breathtaking views at the top. Luckily, my family also shares this innate drive to explore mountains and before long we would be on our way to the crests of those craggy mountains.
Tom showed us around the lakeshores and regaled us with extravagant tales of New Zealand history and legend about the area. He was full of a million facts about the place and had a seemingly unending repertoire of information to draw upon about everything that we came across. We swung around a finger of beige rock and were greeted by a gigantic snarling face. This Maori warrior engraving was etched into the rock wall and stood more than 50 feet high above the lapping waves of the lake. Its contorted features and intricate facial designs were characteristic of most Maori artwork. However, this piece of art was singularly exceptional because of its immense size and extremely difficult location. The artists must have hung down from ropes in order to chip away at the rock and create this incredible natural mural.
Our fascination with the rock wall was diminished later when we found that this wasn’t a relic of ancient Maori doing. It was done in the 1970’s with the help of modern technology. Nonetheless, it was still a superb achievement. And just because it wasn’t a thousand years old and carved from whale bones and rock hammers doesn’t mean that it isn’t an amazing piece of work.
While we are on the topic of the Maori, let me fill you all in on a little bit of their history. The peopling of New Zealand is a remarkable event that is only matched in its peculiarity by the development of its plants and animals. The Maori people are the original inhabitants of New Zealand (or Aoteora). However, their presence on the giant island does not stretch back to ancient times. It pales in comparison to the 60,000 year existence of aborigines across the sea in Australia. It is only a chink of time out of the 20,000 year stint of Native American dominance on the American continents. The Maori’s only stumbled onto the shores of New Zealand sometime around the 14th century. Before their arrival, the place was empty. The diminutive 700 year period of continued residence make New Zealand the last real place on earth to be populated by humans. Even the sandspit islands of Micronesia that are smaller than a football field had flourishing societies before human eyes saw the forests of Aoteora.
I don’t mean to knock the Maori’s for only being there for less than a millennium, but in the grand scope of things it is a pretty small amount of time. Despite their late arrival, the Maori people quickly dominated the land and took advantage of its rich resources and varied landscape. These descendants of Polynesian seafarers organized themselves into complex groups with political systems, military units, and a thriving culture. The Maori are famous for being fierce warriors and putting up a nasty fight against the guns and cannons of the British Navy. They successfully fought against the invading British with nothing but long sticks and other hand made weapons. But they were no amateurs wielding these sticks and were able to thwart the efforts of the technologically advanced British. Eventually the Englishmen prevailed and took full control of the islands in the 19th century. The 400 years of foreign rule did have a devastating effect upon the Maori society, however it was not nearly as destructive as seen in many other places. In the Americas, Australia and many other places around the world 95% of the indigenous population was wiped out within a couple centuries due to disease and warfare. But the Maori stayed strong and still account for a sizeable chunk of the country’s population. Although they do struggle with discrimination and racism, they still own many important land holdings and have kept their unique culture alive.
Lets take a step back from my condensed and uninformed narrative about Maori history and move on to my activities on the day after Christmas. The weather forecast had been predicting storms for a long time and we wanted to take advantage of this unforeseen sunshine while we had it. So on the day after Christmas, we strapped on our shoes and embarked upon a very ambitious hike. A 19.4 kilometer trek over the volcanic peaks in the Tongoriro Alpine Pass.
The Tongoriro National Park is famous for two reasons. It has the most popular day hike in all of New Zealand and it contains the epic mountain scenery depicted as Mordor in the Lord of the Rings series. Both of these things appealed to us. We are an outdoor family that loves to camp and hike, and we also just so happen to be big fans of the Lord of the Rings books and movies. Scaling the volcanic edges of Mt. Doom was too much of an opportunity to pass up.
We awoke early and drove past the southern edge of the lake to the massif of volcanic peaks that stand at the center of Tongoriro. As the cloud cover dissipated, we caught a quick glimpse of the three prominent mountaintops that we were approaching. Mt. Ruhapue was the largest and most dominate figure in the area and Mt. Tongariro lent its name to the park, but Mt. Ngarahoe is the conical black mound that served as the menacing Mt. Doom centerpiece of hellish Mordor. This brief moment of cloudless skies was our only unimpeded view of the peaks for the rest of the day, but it was enough to inspire us onward and into the bizarre geological wonderland that awaited us through the alpine pass.
The beginning of our hike took us through crusted lava fields of desolation. The rivers of magma froze in their tracks and crumpled upon each other in heaps of ragged basalt. Miles of lifeless rock covered the ground in all directions. The patterns of former liquid lava flows were easily identifiable in streaks and lines of wavering rock. In many places, it looked as if a freeze ray zapped a river of rushing water and then stained it coal black. In other spots, the rock was lumpy and crooked. It was as if a playful god made drip sand castles out of ground ebony, or squeezed inky frosting out of a giant tube. The melty piles of solid rock were obviously not up thrusts of subsurface bedrock, they most assuredly flowed from the burning holes of lava atop the funnel shaped volcanoes.
Although we were in a rain drenched area brimming with nutrients, the realm of volcanic leftovers snuffed out the possibility of thriving life. There wasn’t a tree in sight and small twisted shrubs were few and far between. No furry critters or chirping birds patrolled the neighborhood. Only a white lichen (or bacteria) flourished in this zone of inhospitable rock. It slimed its away across the black ground and covered the chunks of lifeless earth. I am sure as time goes, the harsh environment will yield to the power of  nature and sprout a few trees that will attract an abundance of life. Nature tends to find a way, even in the most difficult places.
Our first rest stop was at Soda Springs. This place had a trickling waterfall of sulfuric water that leaked over the edge of a wet cliff face. It was located at the end of the lava fields where the valley rounded out at the base of Mt. Ngarahoe. From this vantage point, we could see the steep ascent daring us to attempt to climb its sheer wall of devilish rock. More than a thousand feet of unholy steepness stared us in the face and called for us to clamber our way to the top. The insane elevation change and 15 km of mountain climbing afterwards was enough to convince my parents that their day hike had come to an appropriate stopping place. They bid us adieu and took the leisurely walk back towards the parking lot. The 6 of us foolhardy youngin’s turned our backs on the valley below and began the climb.
Jim challenged me to a race and began hurtling up the mountain at a blistering pace. I followed him for a few hundred yards then slowed back down to the staggering slump that would take me to the top. Soon after, he stopped his impossible mission of bounding away like a bunny rabbit on crack and slowed to normal pace. The elevation grade was ridiculous, but we weren’t crawling on hands and knees. The path was well manicured and had wooden slats for steps along much of the track. Metal nets fastened the crumbling rock to the hillside and prevented landslides. The hike was strenuous, but not deranged.
We finally came to flat ground in the saddle that sat between the peaks of Ngarahoe and Tongariro. From this swooping cradle, we could gaze deep into the New Zealand interior and clearly see the rocky flows of ancient lava that surrounded us. In the opposite direction, the magnificent South Crater sprawled below us. Its desert like flatness and smooth ground was in stark contrast to the rough topography of the lava fields. It looked dry, dusty and desolate. We briefly considered taking the 3-hour side trip to the saw-toothed crater rim at the top of Mt. Doom, but decided that we would be pushing our physical limits beyond pleasurable activity. Instead, we dove down the escarpment into the horizontal barrenness of South Crater.
We walked passed an old Asian man clutching his leg in pain and we were warned of the dangers in such rugged territory. However, muscle pain and twisted ankles weren’t the main danger lurking in Tongariro. A sign told us about the proper procedure if one of the volcanoes blew its load. It explained the catastrophic damage from former eruptions and directed us to get down the mountain as quickly as possible while avoiding channels or low points where flowing magma would like to settle. This is still considering an active volcanic area and has had small eruptions as recently as 2009. The last major explosion was in 1975 and left most of the top layers of rock that we were walking across. Although the idea of being swallowed by liquid fire was not exactly appealing, some nutty notion inside me thought it might be kind of cool to run down the mountainside while flaming orange goo seeped out the top. As long as I didn’t end up as an entombed statue of fresh molten rock, the idea of escaping from a volcanic eruption seemed like an exciting possibility. The obscure chance of it actually happening only heightened the excitement of traversing these eccentric mountains.
South Crater was a nice respite from vertiginous hiking terrain, but a nearly perpendicular climb out of the caldera was our next challenge. This ascent was not as long as the first, but possibly just as difficult. The problem with this mountainside was its crumbling rock and lack of coherent pathway. Rocks slipped beneath our feet as we struggled our way up the slope. It was the kind of hiking where you take two steps forward and then slide one step back. The pebbles shift under our weight and made mini rockslides with each step. A traffic jam of hikers had accumulated on this brittle precipice. Older folks had slowed to a snails pace and many were using both hands to creep along rocky ground. We hardly stopped to enjoy the view and just powered our way to the top. It was a menacing undertaking, but the reward at the top was well worth the burden.
The top of this peak was named for the Red Crater that tore a scar in its side. A slice of rock was seemingly ripped from the top of this mountain and left a brilliantly red and black blemish in its place. The crevice was colored with stunning maroon streaks and black slashes. The stark redness was an intense distinction from the jet black core of the volcano. A thin column was scratched out from the crater edge and showed the gray ash interior of the mountainside. The amazing colors of the crater were further enhanced by what lurked over their far fringe.
The Emerald Lakes are possibly the most aptly named places on the planet. They are literally as bright green as emeralds. Three of these extraordinary pools sat at the bottom of Red Crater. Their sulfur infused waters almost glowed against the reds and blacks that colored the surrounding rock. Plumes of gas leaked from within the earth and provided a mysterious aura that surrounded the pools. The shimmering green jewels were spectacular to behold, but nobody was jumping in for a swim. I assumed that they would be scorching hot from the earthen steam brewing below and squirting out from beside the water, so I investigated with a finger dip. The temperature was surprisingly cold, which made me realize that potential for blistering skin rashes were not the reason for avoiding the enchanting pools. We figured that the toxic chemicals and the prospect of walking another 10 kilometers with soggy shoes through chilly mountain air were enough to dissuade anyone from doing swan dives into the irresistibly beautiful waters.
I took plenty of pictures of the Emerald Lakes and Red Crater, but it is one of those places where an amateur snapshot cannot truly capture the essence of the place. My memory of the area will survive in a much clearer context than any picture will ever show. The extreme elevation coupled with unreal coloration and volcanic setting created a scene that will live on as a mental image in my mind for the rest of my life.
After a short lunch resting between the lakes, we continued our travels and went down into another large flat crater basin. This spot had some pockets of snow nestled at the base of rock outcroppings. I couldn’t resist the temptation to feel the cold touch of snow once again, so Jenna and I ran towards the closest bed of snow on the left side of the track. The rest of our group soon followed and came over towards us. The next move was obvious; Jenna and I started to form a small arsenal of snowballs to fling at our unsuspecting siblings. We unloaded our cache of snowflake grenades with limited success before our enemy targets reached the snow patch. A few misaimed snowballs scattered debris on our shoulders, but no deathblows were struck. My fingers started to go numb so I began to stroll away. When I was about 30 yards away, Jim hollered at me and said to stop. I agreed to stand in one place at this seemingly safe distance and allow him one free throw at me. As he hurled the cannonball of ice chunks in my direction, Brooke unexpectedly tossed another one from the side. I reacted to the surprise of Brooke’s throw and turned my head to the side. Right as my face jerked away from the danger, I felt an explosion of freezing pain on the back of my neck. Jim had connected perfectly on an impossible shot and showered me with wet shrapnel. The snow not only caked on the back of my hair, but also fell down the back of shirt and leaked all the way to my pants. I had no right to be upset because I let him do it, and it was a pretty amazing throw (but I cant say I was happy about it).
The next sight on our trek was called Blue Lake. Once again, it was properly named for the bright color that it emitted. This was much larger than its emerald companions and filled what was probably a defunct crater. We walked along the edge of the lake and then happily found out that our ascent was just about over. The rest of the way was a downhill jaunt to the fern forests at the bottom of mountain range. We crested the final brim and saw the wide expanse of land checkered with lakes, volcanoes and ranches that made up New Zealand’s interior. Our time of scrambling over volcanic debris had come to an end and ahead of us was a well maintained zig zag path that led down the back slope.
The guidebook that we consulted before embarking concluded its description of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing with a phrase that said, “then you will descend into Virgin bush”. Well, the actually meaning of this was understood by us all (untouched wilderness), but the words used to describe it were just too coincidentally sexual to be ignored. Being a group of young adults with a well-developed immature sense of humor, you can only imagine the fun we had toying with the idea of delving into the depths Virgin Bush and the million other jokes that we made about this phrase. Every few minutes, one of us would crack a new joke about “penetrating” or  “feeling, but not seeing” or  “anticipating the wetness” or “smelling” that Virgin Bush.
We eventually did enter the unknown patch of virgin bush and were excited to have a totally new setting. Up until this point, there was not a tree or bush on the 16 kilometers behind us. Now we were thrust into a lush fern forest brimming with life. A stream flowed through the dense trees and ferns overflowed the region.
Our legs were aching, our knees were wobbly and our bodies were exhausted, but we were still able to enjoy the serene scenery around us. The steep decline was even more painful on our legs than the initial climb. At times we walked backwards or ran down the trail to try to ease the stress on our joints. Our journey was nearly at its end and we were all eagerly looking forward to cold beers and warm showers. The last few kilometers through the forest seemed painstakingly slow because our enthusiasm was drained, but we eventually made it to the end.
We finished the 19.4 km (12-13 miles) in about 6 hours. The estimated time period was 7-8, but we are awesome and did it quicker. The distance was daunting, but the real challenge was the terrain. We rose and then descended thousands of feet on both sides of the mountains. Our only flat walking was on the crater floors and the final mile of bush. It was a challenging hike, but worth every minute. We saw things that we probably will never see again and gazed upon numerous improbable wonders of geological magic. Volcanoes have been the driving force behind creating our terrestrial world and it was fascinating to see their outlandishly gorgeous achievements at the nascent stages.
We spent the night back our Taupo lake house lounging in the Jacuzzi and watching the opening games of the NBA season. Curtis watched in agony as the once mighty Lakers lost at the buzzer when the aging Kobe got blocked on his attempt to win the game. We dined on some fine New Zealand cuisine, I believe it was called pizza and came from a hut. And my mom nearly choked while eating a carrot and we all stood idly and tried to talk her through it. She eventually yaked up the deadly nugget of carrot flesh and was no worse for wear.
The following day, we felt that we deserved a much-needed break from activity and spent the day doing nothing. We slept in late, then took a shopping trip into the city of Taupo. We bought some groceries, perused around at some souvenir shops and walking around the little town. The city center was a compact bunch of retailers and restaurants organized on a small square grid. It was full of boutique shops and one-story buildings. The population of Taupo triples during the holiday season, so we experienced it at its maximum of activity. However, it still had a feeling of quaintness and charm that pervaded through the onslaught of tourist shoppers.
We held a dinner party for our Kiwi friends that helped organize our trip and hosted us for Christmas Eve. Two older couples and a rich bachelor named Hugh came over and feasted on chicken, shrimp, pasta and an array of tasty foods. This family comes from a very distinguished line of successful businessmen in New Zealand and my dad kept referring to them as royalty. Regardless of their supposed royal stature, we had a wonderful time getting to know them all. We drank more than a case of wine, a couple bottles of whiskey and who knows what else. 
Immediately as our guests pulled out of the driveway, Curtis cranked up the volume on the stereo and we burst into a spontaneous dance party. We pranced around like inept inebriated ballerinas for a few minutes before Brooke announced that she was going to go take a swim in the frosty waters of the lake. Well we weren’t gonna let her do it on her own, so we suited up and dawdled down the waterside. We plunged into the water and let out screams of joyous agony at the iciness that swarmed over our bodies. We instinctually gathered in a big circle and hugged together for warmth. Then suddenly something prompted us to start laughing. And laugh we did. We laughed louder and harder than ever before. And it was no normal laugh. It was a pseudo-evil laugh. It brought to mind the scene from Austin Powers, where the entourage of Dr. Evil unites in a drawn out cackle of villainous proportions.
Our circle of sinister snickering faded out and we all sped for the shore. We raced to the Jacuzzi and warmed our freezing limbs. We never got the pump to work correctly and the water temperature never rose above 100 degrees, but it was plenty warm enough at a time like this. What happened next is questionable and no exact facts will ever be uncovered, the only evidence of what transpired was a pile of empty bottles. Wine, beer, whiskey and a whole lot of Scrumpy’s. At the end of a night of drinking, Scrumpy’s barely tingles the throat when it goes down. So we proceeded to drain everything we had. It was a fun filled night of haphazard and wacky family bonding, but some of us would pay for it the next day.
Our plan for the following morning was to drive out to the wine tasting region of Hawke’s Bay and sip on the antipodean vino of New Zealand. The Burnham’s once again acted as our guides and were going to take us to a beach house of their relatives. All we had to do was stop by Mary Jane’s sister’s house and grab the key to the beach house. Our drive to Hawke’s Bay was an extremely windy tour of grassy hillsides and pine forests. This two-lane highway towards the ocean had very few straight-aways and curved in a constant succession of twists and turns.
If you add together one shopping cart full of potent alcohol and a shaky 2 hour drive, you will most assuredly get a carload of nauseous passengers. The first to feel the unsettling effects of the body rejecting the toxic substances forced into it the previous night was Julie. We moved her up to the front seat and hoped that the swaying would be diminished. We laughed about how much Scumpy’s we drank and tried to put together the details of what happened throughout the night. The mention of Julie’s queasiness also led us all to recount all the stories we knew about puking in the car. We began to run low of anecdotes of vehicle vomiting when Brooke rolled down her window and let out a stream of half digested Scrumpy. There were no turnouts on the side of road and we had to wait a couple minutes before pulling over, but she did an admirable job of keeping every ounce of puke out the window and most of it away from the car siding. I finally found a widespot in the road and jerked the car onto a dirt driveway. Julie stumbled out the door and did her own rendition of the puking poka. The two girls hunched over on the side of highway and emptied their stomachs of the vile bile that tormented their bellies. Afterwards, they cleaned up a bit, drank some water and then we were back on our route.
This throw-up detour slightly diminished our gusto for wine tasting. The rest of us were not in as bad of shape, but we weren’t exactly in peak condition. Although we were entering prized wine country, the idea of sucking down more booze was not too appealing. A meal and a nap seemed more appropriate plans for our immediate future.
Before stopping for lunch, we had to stop off at the house and snag the key for the other house. We passed through the beach town of Napier and drove along the coast for a couple miles. The seawater was a frothy green color and would have been startling in its brightness had we not just seen the sparkling Emerald Lakes. The fresh ocean air livened our spirits perked our excitement for spending a day at the beach.
We turned back inland and were now in the heart of wine country. We worked our way up into the hills and began to pass vast estates with affluent mansions surrounded by vineyards and orchards. We were marveling at the stately manors up the hillside, when the Burnhams pulled quickly off the road and through a black gate flanked by rows of elegant Cyrpress trees. I followed them into the grounds of Plowman Estate, also known as Waiana.
The Plowman estate (or manor, or compound, or palace, or whatever you want to call it) was not what I was expecting when Mary Jane said we were going to stop by their home and grab a key. This place was massive. Tom offhandedly remarked that the house was actually rather modest, it only spanned about 5500 sq. ft. Under most circumstances this would seem like a stupid statement because 5500 sq. ft is humungous by most judgments, but in this context it was actually a true statement. The grounds of the Plowman estate were so immense that the house was nothing more than a speck on the surface of this regal establishment.
A flawlessly cut lawn wrapped around the house and covered more area than a couple football fields. It overlooked miles of picturesque vineyards and ranches that stretched towards the horizon in the Hawke’s Bay valley. This is the most productive agricultural land in all of New Zealand and its beauty reflects the fertility of its fields. To the left stood a famous jagged hilltop of stone that is a sacred spot for the Maori people. The view alone would have made this place unparalleled in its majesty, but that was only the beginning.
            Tom and Mary Jane led us on walking tour of the estate and we spent the next hour wandering through the many acres of grandeur. We passed by the waterfall that dropped into a tranquil pond blanketed by lily pads and lotus flowers. We plucked juicy apricots off trees and meandered through orchards of pears, apples, and citrus. We trotted down the grass amphitheatre and along the eucalyptus lined pathway. Eventually, we came to the vineyard and strolled down a row of budding grapes. We took a look at the vegetable garden and fed a hungry group of fattened chickens. The area is so big and so full of vegetation that it requires three gardeners working full time to maintain it. Almost all of the trees and plants have been imported and require constant attention in order to thrive in this foreign environment.
Mr. Plowman has created a wonderful playground that brought to mind nothing except aristocratic estates from the Victorian age of Britain. I have never been to England, but I have read many books and seen plenty of movies that depict the fabulous manors of aristocratic families that sprawl across the English countryside. I could imagine Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde sipping tea at a table and discussing gossip about the Duchess’s debutante ball while watching a game of croquet on the lawn. This place seemed to replicate all the splendor and pomp of noble lords and their dramatic landholdings.
The most ridiculous thing about this place was that the Plowman’s don’t even live here. It’s just a summer house. A summer house that could hold the entire population of my island with enough left over space to play a match of polo. The couple spend most of their time in Hong Kong and only visit their stately manor for a couple months out of the year. An extremely lucky pair of Swedish people are the designated house-sitters and get full use of the place for most of the year. They just have to make sure the gardeners and housekeepers stay on task. Talk about the good life.
After our tour of the kingly estate, we took off towards the summerhouse for their summer house at Ocean Beach. We stopped along the way and had a free wine tasting at Black Barn vineyards, but ended our vineyard tour after one try due to the increasing grogginess and hunger of our crew. Then we got a bite to eat in a small town before going back to the coast and finding our spot at Ocean Beach. We slowed at the top of the cliffside and took in the grand scope of the blue Pacific before sinking down to the sandy beach below. The beach house was not nearly on the same scale as the enormous palace inland, but it held a certain charm that made it almost more enjoyable. This type of house is a called a bach and was built in the style of traditional New Zealand vacation homes. One-story and small, but full of cozy attractiveness that settles you into a pleasant state of dreamlike delirium.
The sound of crashing waves and flapping seagulls was right outside the backdoor. It took about 10 steps to make it to warm sand and sink our toes into the finely ground grains of rock and shells that created this exquisite beach. A few people were basking in the sun and wading in the water, but mostly it was empty. This huge expanse of white sand seemed to be all ours. But I did see some uniquely New Zealand beach activities. Some guys were tossing around a rugby ball instead of a football or Frisbee. A 4-wheel ATV came speeding by with a wooden wagon attached to the back and three little kids giggling in glee. A little boy went zooming across the flat sandscape on a bicycle powered by the wind. The contraption had a sail attached the top and was propelled along just like a sailboat (except it had wheels and was on land).
The afternoon and evening flowed by in a leisurely manner as we all set about various lazy activities of reading, napping or sun bathing. The mellow atmosphere brought a peacefulness to us all, and we all smiled softly as we relaxed on the ocean side. A pasta dinner, some sandy walks and little stargazing were all that occupied us for the rest of the night. We feel asleep early and drifted into a calm rest with the white noise of waves slapping the shore serenading us into our dreams.
I found myself in a novel situation the following morning because I was the first person up and awake. I am often the last one to straggle out of bed, but my biological clock has been disrupted by my island schedule. I got up early and read a book on the porch by the sea as I waited for the others to come yawning out of their bedrooms. The two young couples went swimming and walking on the beach and the rest of us chilled around the bach. Curtis and I attempted to outdo the failed attempt at kite flying from the day before, but once again were bested by the mess of strings and flaps that was far beyond our simplistic understanding of kite aerodynamics. We eventually gave up and tossed the colorful cloth and strings into a pile behind the couch, leaving it to a group of genius aerospace engineers to decipher some day.
Before lunch time, we set out on our return journey and speedily made it back to Taupo. Much to my chagrin and cocky predictions, the rain that had been predicted for weeks by the false weather reports finally arrived. The pellets of water began to pour down and would continue for most of the rest of our trip. However, we had accomplished most of our outdoor activities and were ready to move onto other items on our long list of to-do’s in New Zealand.
Upon arriving back in Taupo, the group of younger ones grabbed some towels and headed to the DeBrett’s Hot Spring Resort down the road. As I mentioned before, the Taupo area is sitting on top of a steamy convection soup of molten rock. The super heated vapor seeps up through the rocks and releases into hot springs, geysers and steam vents. Five minutes from our house was one of the most famous spots that had harnessed the power of that volcanic steam and turned it into an attraction.
The first thing we saw on our approach to DeBrett’s was a 5-story water slide that shot screaming children out of a dragon’s mouth. Although this would be heaven for many a youngsters, we were all a little bit old for playing at a water amusement park and weren’t exactly thrilled to see this type of atmosphere. Fortunately, the admission to the resort also included free access to the private pools. We reserved a private room and walked away from the dragon slide to a large cabin style building with 6 doors in a row. Inside our room was a charming personal spa with wooden sauna walls and a carved Maori face spitting out steaming water into our pool. We dipped into the mineral enriched water and happily let the warmness seep into our skin. Now this was a real Jacuzzi.
After downing our set of smuggled beers and playing a few games of a variation on Liar’s Dice, the boys took a little break from the heat and ran out towards the slide. At first we made fun of it, but then raced to stand in line with the six year olds and await our turn on the slithering dragon of doom. We exited the landing pool and a moment of quick eye contact was enough to say, “Lets go again!”.  I watched a little girl dive head first and decided myself to break the only rule written on the wall and barrel down the slide with my arms outstretched and my mouth tightly shut. We had so much fun that we hurried back to the private pool and urged the girls to go take a turn.
The slide is a good example of a point I wanted to make about safety in New Zealand. The country is known for its daredevil adventures and adrenaline junky sports, but they don’t seem to overly concerned with safety. The slide had no lifeguard, no height limit and no supervision of any kind except an old lady sitting at the ticket counter. In America, a group of concerned parents would go zonkers over this lack of safety precautions. Lawsuits would be filed when some stupid little snot stood up and hit his head on the dragon’s mouth. The resort would be closed for gross negligence and the efficiency of the US legal system would reign supreme. There are a million examples of foolish liability lawsuits that have sprung up over the years in the US and they are only increasing in frequency each time some idiot is awarded a million dollars for being a dumbass. Some of the most famous examples are the hot coffee spillage lady from McDonalds, the guy who fell on a knife when robbing a house and sued the homeowners, and the man who put a fake finger in his own chili at Wendy’s.
Fortunately for New Zealanders and everybody except the greedy lawyers, these types of frivolous lawsuits don’t happen down here. People know the risks they are taking, and take them anyway. You are responsible for yourself, so be careful in what you do. I for one admire this type of individual responsibility applied to the legal system. When you do something crazy or foolish, its your own damn fault if you get hurt. So if you go to New Zealand, bring a bandaid and some Neosporin but don’t expect any sympathy from the Kiwis when you trip on a branch at a park and want to sue the city for dangerous walkways.
That night, our family did our standard gig of drinking lots of wine and eating a delicious meal. I believe we dined on scallop and steak shish kabobs for our evening meal. However, the highlight of the night was playing a big family game of Taboo. Upon my mom’s insistence, we integrated charades into the game format and had a hilarious time of guessing words. It became intensely competitive at times, but was overall a very fun night of loony actions and absurd statements.
Our last planned destination was to go to the city of Roturua. This area is famous for its sheep and cultural Maori camps. The first spot on our trip was the Agrodome. It sounds like a fight-to-the-death arena from Mad Max, but in fact was home to the world famous sheep show. I know it sounds lame. And we thought it sounded pretty lame too. But Mary Jane and all the other locals incessantly urged us to go. They explained that, “No trip to New Zealand is complete without seeing a sheep get sheared”. We took the advice and showed up on a rainy afternoon at the doors of the Agrodome. And we were not to be disappointed.
Before the show, the sheep were chained along the edges of the auditorium and we were free to pet and play with them. I was surprised to see how ugly and grayish they were. The sheep I see in cartoons and in my dreams when they are jumping over a fence are always white and fluffy with cute little faces. But these sheep were big, hairy and dirty. Many had curved horns and stark black faces. They smelled kind of rank and did not really fit the idealized description of innocent lambs. I don’t mean to demean these sheep. They really were impressive creatures, but it was just different from what I had expected.
The show began with an excitable announcer explaining about the sheep business in New Zealand. I forget the exact figures, but I think there are about 4 million people in the country and over 80 million sheep. Sheep are the heart and soul of the rural economy and hold a special place in the heart of Kiwis. The place was founded as a ranching outpost for cattle and sheep and it hasn’t strayed too much form that original vision. The sheep population is now diverse and varied. The Agrodome exposition showcased the different sheep and described each one.
As the sheep were being introduced one by one and taking their places on the stage, the announcer picked me out of the crowd and asked me to come up to the side of the sheep pen on the edge of the stage. He asked me if I would please hold the gate shut for a moment because he didn’t want one of the sheep escaping. He warned me that the sheep was extremely strong and I would have to put all my weight into the door in order to keep it closed. He backed away and I took my stance against the wooden gate. The sheep began to charge at the fence but then leapt over the top and ran to his proper place on the state. Everybody laughed and I looked like an idiot for being outsmarted by a wool covered quadruped.
The next part of the show was the sheep-shearing exhibition. The man wrangled a sheep out of a closed door and it scrambled like a crazed rat to try to escape. He got a hold of it, flipped it onto its butt, held it in his arm and rubbed its belly. Within seconds the sheep was calm as a sleeping baby. It went limp in his arm and he jokingly showed us how easily it had given everything over to the shearer. The sheep was ready for his haircut and barely stirred a muscle for the rest of the procedure. Well the procedure was pretty quick. Within two minutes the man had shaven the poor little bugger and left him as a shivering mass of white fluff.
He threw the wool into the audience and we all got a chance to feel the unprocessed material. A cow then came waddling onto the stage and we got a run down on cattle farming in New Zealand. Volunteers were called up to milk the udders and did so happily. After the cow had his moment in the limelight, the dogs came into center stage. The first dog was super smart and obediently obeyed every command that the man gave. It circled around, chased ducks, nipped at the sheep and came to a perfect stop at any instant.
The next dog that came tumbling on the stage was even more impressive. This giant beast came roaring into the building barking and howling in a ferocious frenzy. It scared people out of their seats and brought the sheep and audience to a standstill. It sprinted up to the stage and ran along the backs of the sheep. It literally walked along the tops of their fluffy backsides and did laps repeating the trick. Every so often he would clamor to the top and stand imposingly on top of the main sheep at the top of the pyramid showcase. This dog had an even more impressive display of tricks and command obeying moves. He would go from barking and circling to a calm and quiet halt in a moment’s time. It was good inspiration for me to go home and train my dog to be a slave controlled by a tiny whistle tweet.
After the dogs finished their display, he called for another round of volunteers and my sister Julie was among the ones picked. She came on stage and was given a bottle of milk. The man explained that they were going to have a milk chugging contest and the first one to drain the bottle of milk would be the winner. I had confidence in my sister and was on the edge of my seat waiting for the gulping to begin. To my surprise (but apparently not to every one else’s) a group of baby lambs were released onto stage and they were the real competitors in the milk-drinking contest. Julie still came out on top and her lamb drained the milk in an instant. I was slightly disappointed that I didn’t get to see Julie get drenched in bucket of milk, but it was still pretty cool.
The Agrodome impressed us beyond expectations, but the next items on the agenda didn’t draw us in as much. We went across the street to check out the Zorb. Zorbing is a home-grown New Zealand invention. Basically, you get inside a giant blow up beach ball that is encased within an even larger blow up beach ball. Then they fill it with water and roll you down a hill. The idea does sound exhilarating and watching people tumble down the track was pretty funny, but the $50 price tag for 7 seconds of wackiness was a little too much for our pockets. We considered the proposal for a while before deciding to pass it up and go eat some lunch. Maybe someday I will be lucky enough to get trapped in a humungous bouncy ball and be tossed down a grassy knoll.
We ate lunch at a Moroccan place called Abracadabra. It was a great experience because we got our own private room adorned with comfortably pillowed benches and intricately designed lamps with swirling designs.  In the comfort of our own Arabian den, we played a trivia game and had a competition of throwing garbanzo beans into our mouths. My mom threw strikes into all of our mouths, but no matter what we did she couldn’t seem to catch one in her mouth. We laughed heartily at her absurd lack of coordination and goaded her into trying again and again (with no success). The atmosphere was really what made it special, but the food was also quite good. A garlic aioli dipping sauce stole the show and we had to order multiple sides of it to satisfy our desires.
We had also planned on attending a Maori cultural performance at Te Puia, but the pounding rain and rounds of beer at lunch dissuaded us from getting involved in a three hour tour. Instead we perused around the gift shop and bought some traditional masks and Kiwi T-shirts. We had all been talking about the Maori for days now, but when the chance came to see them in action we just kind of flopped. I was rather dismayed that we didn’t get to see the famous Haka dance, but at least we got some local souvenirs so that we can act like we were cultured in the ways of the Maori.
On our way back to Taupo, we stopped on the Waikoto River and took a look at the famous Huka Falls. These falls were much different from the others we saw. It wasn’t a high graceful falls, but rather a powerful surge of whitewater flooding out of a canyon. The huge river narrowed into a canyon and turned into a froth of churning water as it tore through the narrow passage. At the end of the canyon face, the water dumped into a wide pool and continued its flow up north. I thought of it less as a waterfall and more of an intense rapid section with a surprise ending. It was a good conclusion to our waterfall-seeing excursions and once again showed us something new. Across the country we saw a long skinny one, a wide short one, a splintered twisty one, a warm dripping one, a quiet trickling one, and a powerful pouring one.
Back at Taupo, we ate a spicy Thai dinner and then organized a drinking game for the family. We introduced my parents to a game called Kings Cup and had a hilarious time going through all the fun activities dictated by the cards. In this game, each card has a different meaning and will tell the players what they must do. Drinks are given accordingly as rewards and punishments. As I alluded to before, my family is pretty awesome. There aren’t too many families out there that get together and laugh around a table as they play college drinking games late into the night.
New Year’s Eve was our last real day of vacation, because on January 1st we would just be traveling and wrapping up lose ends. Our options for fun were very limited because the sky had been flooding rain onto the lake at a breakneck pace and gave no signs of letting up. We watched Lord of Rings and had fun trying to recognize the mountain scenery that we had climbed a few days before. I was beginning to settle into a sleepy stupor when Jim excitedly burst in the door and told my dad, “lets go fishing!”
The clouds had just cleared and we had a bit of sunshine to liven our spirits and prepare us for another adventure. My dad had been aching to go trout fishing the entire trip because the rivers around Taupo are world famous for fly-fishing. Someone had just boasted to us about catching a 16 pound trout on the same day that his friend caught a 12 pounder. The stories of giant fish being caught at ease are quite common around here, and we wanted to try our luck. We consider ourselves good fisherman, but are accustomed to tiny creeks in the high Sierra Nevada Mountains. This would be a different kind of fly fishing, but we were itching to give it a shot.
My dad, Jim, Brooke and I hopped in the car and hurriedly sped down to the closest river. We consulted a couple of maps and found a better looking spot down the road a ways. The car then pulled off onto a dirt road and we rumbled into the bush to find a more remote location. We arbitrarily picked a good looking trail and headed into the forest towards the river.
The minute we stepped out of the car, the rain started back up again. I brought a rain jacket, but this would prove of little us. Apparently “waterproof” is just a marketing term and actually has nothing to do with keep water from inside the jacket. Within 20 minutes, I was soaked to the bone. The wetness had seeped through the jacket, through my shirt and into my pores. It was cold and I was wet, but I was far from miserable. It was actually a lot of fun to be romping on the riverbanks and through ferny bushes in search of trout on a stormy day. Thorns scraped at our shins and our feet sunk into muddy puddles, but we were lighthearted and never wavered in our enthusiasm. I even plunged knee deep into the icy river a few times to get a good casting position away from the brush.
The few hours that we spent wandering along the riverside was a great experience, but not very successful in the fishing department. Actually it was very unsuccessful. Jim had one on his line and it slipped away as he pulled it out of the water, but the rest of us were empty handed through the entire afternoon. There is a popular fisherman’s motto that states, “The worst day fishing is better than the best day working”. This couldn’t have been truer than on this day. We didn’t catch a fish and we almost caught pneumonia, but it was still an unforgettably fun day in the rain.
New Years 2012 passed in a fairly mild mannered fashion at the Hunter’s lake house. Of course we drank our fair share of liquor and had jolly times partying together, but it wasn’t a crazy celebration of epic proportions. We played a never ending game of poker where my mom kept stealing chips and giving them to the losers so that nobody actually every went out of the game. Then we popped our champagne bottles and toasted to the New Year before retiring to our beds not long after midnight.
The first day of the New Year was spent cleaning up our house and driving back to Auckland. We split into two groups and the young couples took a bus so that we could have enough room in the car for all the luggage. We arrived in Auckland at the Novotel hotel in the late afternoon. The hotel was literally as close as you could possibly imagine to the airport. Outside the lobby was a street. Across that street were the doors to the airport terminal. Quite convenient.
We were so close to the airport that we ate at a restaurant inside the terminal. Our family had our last meal together and downed our last beers. We reminisced about our adventures over the last couple weeks and looked forward to when we would unite again.
My family took off at 4am the next morning, but I still had another 24 hours to kill while in Auckland. I took an airport shuttle into downtown and looked around for a hostel. I saw three places on the first block that I looked on and chose the one with the biggest sign. The Queen’s Backpacker Hostel was by far the biggest hostel I have ever stayed it. It had more than 50 rooms full of guests. A huge common room with pool tables, couches, TV’s and a bar provided ample room for people to relax. It was also the first hostel I had ever stayed at where almost everybody spoke English.
After a short nap to rejuvenate my spirits, I went on a walk around the city by myself. I had no idea what I wanted to see or what I wanted to do, but I figured I would just walk around and see what there was to see in my immediate surroundings in the city of Auckland. The rain had dried up and it was a beautifully sunny day outside, just perfect for a city stroll.
As I had recently discovered in Korea, it is often really nice to travel alone. It can be lonely at meal times and drinking hours, but for general sightseeing it is a good way of doing things. The main reason why I liked it is because it forces you to really observe everything around you. Instead of having a conversation with your buddy about the latest football scores or foreign policy in Iran, you have no choice but to stare at the all the things around you. The sights get your undivided attention. And as a result, you end up noticing many more fascinating things about the area that might have usually gone unnoticed.
I spent a long time walking along the waterside at Victoria Quay. The rows of massive yachts were very impressive and I even got to see a drawbridge rise so that one could pass underneath. Auckland is known as the “City of Sails” and is very proud of its sailing vessels. Victoria Quay is the parking lot for these behemoth sailboats and is a wonderful showcase for the ships. The harbor area is also home to a fresh fish market and dozens of bars and restaurants on the water. I ate a sandwich and drank a beer at an Irish pub called Danny Ohoolihans and then walked back into the city proper.
I quickly tired of passing by souvenir shops and clothing stores, so I looked at a street map and headed towards a place called Albert Park. The park was behind a street that had been torn to pieces by construction and I had to detour around the orange cones before getting to the grassy pathways that led into the park. The first thing that I noticed and the thing that stuck with me the most about Albert Park was the amazing trees. I am not a dendrologist and have no idea what kind of trees were sprawled across this park, but I do know that they were spectacular. The trees were massive and twice as wide as they were tall. The trunks were split into many sections and often had a huge hole in the center. The thick branches stretched horizontally in all directions and provided perfect platforms for climbing. I felt like a little kid as I swung myself over the branches and explored the upper reaches of these wondrous giants. I perched myself on a fat branch and sat for a while as I contemplated my travels over the last month and my current life choices that have taken me to Chuuk and so many more places.
I descended from the tree and explored the rest of the park. A large fountain stood at the center and a few war memorials were scattered around the edges. All around people were enjoying the sunny weather and the freshness of a new year. Old ladies held hands with their wrinkled husbands, little kids ran in circles and giggled on the grass, tattooed teenagers sat in a circle on the ground, an Asian man was flying a butterfly kite, and I saw four separate couples passionately kissing under the shade of trees. It was a beautiful day in Auckland and I was happy that I had this final day to see it all happen.
Back at the hostel, I made friends with a few other travelers and had some really interesting conversations. One of the great things about staying at backpacker hostels is that you meet so many fascinating people. I think that I have some crazy stories and am living a life off the beaten track, but I am an amateur compared to all the wild things that these world travelers have done. I played pool with a Scottish farmer, drank beers with a Chilean soccer player, talked for hours with a Canadian scuba instructor, and discussed fishing with a Portuguese filmmaker. I never even left the hostel that night because I was too interested in meeting all the entertaining characters around the place.
My month long winter traveling expedition was now finally at end. I began at my home in the Chuuk Lagoon, island-hopped to a Peace Corps conference in Pohnpei, passed a drunken day in Guam, did a week of wandering the freezing streets of Korea and then spent the holidays with my family in New Zealand. It was a big change from my sleepy island life in Micronesia and once again further widened my world perspective. It is bittersweet to now be back in my tiny island village. It is bitter to be stripped again of the luxuries of hot showers, tasty food and family fun. But on the other hand, I am pumped up about finishing the last year of my service and getting (and giving) all that I can out of this experience.