Auckland and Around

My last stop on the epic New Zealand bus tour was Auckland, where my flight was to take off. I decided to skip dolphin swimming in Tauranga and mt. Maunganui due to bad weather (boo!), and left to the lovely suburb of Pukekohe, 30-1.5hrs drive south from central Auckland, to stay with a lovely family of family friends I had never met before. My activities in Pukekohe included reading Dora books to the adorable kids, baking Finnish pulla, and just relaxing.

Little bakers.
Little bakers.

I ventured to Auckland city one day, just so that I could say I have been. Saw the sky tower, walked down Queen Street, went to have some drinks with my friend and his mates, sat in traffic for over an hour. Auckland is “just another big city”, but then again it looked beautiful and had some quirky lanes and they’ve got a waterfront! Sure it is used mostly for containers, but still. Water!

Humongous container for humans to float on water.
Humongous container for humans to float on water.

I could have spent more time in Auckland, but opted for reading Princess stories to the kids instead. The next day was a bit more adventurous, heading off to Matakana farmers’ market at dawn and continuing north to Goat Island marine reserve.

Market vibes
Market vibes
This poodle doesn't mind to be minded
This poodle doesn’t mind to be minded
Find anything you could need for a decent weekend feast
Find anything you could need for a decent weekend feast
Buffalo milk. Yum-mo
Buffalo milk. Yum-mo

In Auckland vicinity, as well as everywhere in Middle Earth New Zealand, one highly benefits from having a vehicle. After checking out the Matakana market, 2nd best market in NZ!, in the wee hours of morning, we continued north to Goat Island, a marine reserve where one can go snorkel, dive, have a wee little trip on a glass bottom boat, or just soak in the sunshine. I just wanted to see the area, and since I had not swam in NZ, I had to tick that off the list, too. As I got used to the water temperature (pleasantly refreshing) and got over the bedazzlement of people wearing wetsuits, I decided to try out snorkelling too. Good times!

Clear waters again!
Clear waters again!

On the way back we stopped to have lunch at a lovely vineyard that was hosting a wedding, and had a nice beach stroll near the city. Not too bad for a last day in New Zealand!

Green pastures and blue skies
Green pastures and blue skies

Hobbiton

In 1998, when a scout knocked mr. Alexander’s door, little did he know that 16 years later his farmland near the small town of Matamata would be visited by thousands of people every single day. When mister Peter Jackson saw mr. Alexander’s farm for the first time during an aerial film location scouting trip, he knew he had found what he wanted. Rolling hills, clusters of trees, no buildings, roads or signs of electricity anywhere in sight – that area would later on become the Shire, the safe haven of Middle Earth.

Neat and tidy bunch of hobbit holes
Neat and tidy bunch of hobbit holes, visible on the last Hobbit film for whole 3 seconds.

The site building started in March 1999, and involved the New Zealand Army building a 1.5km road to transport everything in place. The 3 month filming period started late the same year. For Lord of the Rings, all props were not durable and were demolished after shooting, but for The Hobbit films, the Alexander family smelled tourism and asked to leave the set in place. Building of the current set took 2 years, and the attention to detail is impeccable. Already in 2002 Russell Alexander was conducting tours, and today the Hobbiton attracts anything between 1000-4000 visitors every single day besides Christmas Day. They have had wedding ceremonies, wedding parties and proposals with 100% success rate.

Feast outside of one of the Hobbit holes.
Feast outside of one of the Hobbit holes.

I was lucky to have the biggest Tolkien fan I have ever met as my tour guide, so I really felt like I got the best possible experience. The walk itself is totally overpriced fast stroll around the village of 37 individual hobbit holes, made with untreated timber, ply and polystyrene, a village that was kept alive just to make money, getting more and more popular every year!

Party tent.
Party tent.
PartyBusiness, the famous Bag End.
PartyBusiness, the famous Bag End.

We did learn fun facts, like that the tree above Bag End is artificially made, the leaves are made in Taiwan and it costs about 10,000$. During filming, catering was organised for 400 people every day, with three 2-course meals daily. Hobbiton has plenty of lovely plants, like apple and pear trees. In the Lord of the Rings books, however, the trees were plum trees. New Zealand plum trees are way too big and not suitable for tiny hobbits, though, so they had to pluck out all the leaves and apples from the trees, and remake it digitally to be plum trees.

The Mill, built for The Hobbit.
The Mill, built for The Hobbit.

After the tour, we were treated to a “free” special brew beer (pale ale or lager), cider or ginger beer. I opted for the cider: lovely tart and not too sweet at all. Pleasurable ending to the tour, but it would have been rather ridiculous to have to pay for the drink. The Green Dragon Inn also serves some small sweets and snacks, and the cheapest coffee I’ve seen so far in NZ ($1)!!

The baker's house, probably my favorite hobbit hole.
The baker’s house, probably my favorite hobbit hole.

Was it worth it? The fangirl in me who went to see The Two Towers in cinema 3(!) times says yes!! The rational person that I am, I knew I would have probably regretted not going, even though I found the whole thing a bit on the $$ side. Luckily I had this trip bundled together with the Waitomo caves, so I didn’t have to make two separate trips in that general direction, they are quite near each other. Apparently heaps of people who visit the village have never even seen the films, some haven’t even heard of them, before visiting. Having read the book 3 times, I reckon I can just justify my enthusiasm towards the attraction.

Waitomo caves

One of New Zealand’s most renowned tourist attractions, Waitomo’s glow worm caves and limestone landscape has been a major attraction and the centre of caving tourism since 1889, when the maori first led people to see the magnificent caves, formed 30 million years ago!

After pondering my adventure level, I decided that I would regret just walking through the caves and be frustrated with watching the mind blowing scenery only from a boat. I opted for black water rafting, a 3 hour trip to the pitch black darkness and 10 degree water, 65 metres below ground. And I was so happy I did.

The Wai (water) tomo (hole) caves boast lofty chambers, long galleries, stalagmite and stalactite formations, small tunnels and caves, mysterious rivers and waterfalls. Before heading to the caves, we geared up and practiced jumping the waterfalls on the river – even that was scary for me! After the practice jump, I decided that I would go all in and go first in everything if I had the chance to. Into the darkness I went, with no other directions but to hold on to my black tube, my adventure vehicle. We crawled trough a tiny labyrinth, jumped 3 waterfalls, had some chilled (truly, chilly) out floating with the flow, paddled and at the end of it all, let the glow worms’ glow guide us out of the cave in pitch black darkness.


I didn’t make this time lapse, obviously.

The rafting was definitely an experience I will never forget – we learned about these glowing maggots (not actually worms!) who have very interesting lives: from mating for 48 hours and then dying, to their cannibalism and webs that have neurotoxin. After the adventure we were treated to a (not so hot) shower, followed with a cup of soup. That experience definitely woke me up, but then I fell asleep on the bus to Hobbiton – the ultimate more new tourist attraction of New Zealand.

Rotorua

Rotorua, quite in the middle of the North Island, is one of the world’s most active geothermal and volcanic region, making it an interesting mix of bubbling natural hot springs, mud, lakes and giant redwood forests. It also happens to be the centre of New Zealand’s remaining maori culture, and a hub for activities ranging from mountain biking to rafting.

Steam from underground.
Steam from underground.

Rotorua is situated between several mountains: Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe. A maori gentleman I met at the spa told me that kiwis use the mountains as reference points, to distinguish which tribe you come from. Unfortunately as my trip was at first mainly for relaxing, and I didn’t have a car to get me out from the city, I missed out on the mountains and forests.

Rotorua information center.
Rotorua information center.

In the celebrations of Valentine’s day, I was lucky to have a chance to visit Hell’s Gate, quite similar geothermal activities and bubbling steamy and stinky hot pools as in the beloved town I once used to live in, Beppu, Japan. Right away when arriving to Rotorua the familiar odour of sulphur reminded me of the good ol’ times in Beppu, and as they also have different Hells, I felt right at home.

Mini volcano.
Mini volcano.

Hells gate is a thermal reserve, and a spa specialising in mud treatments and traditional massages. I was pampered and treated to an experience consisting of the mineral rich spa pools, a mud bath, and an hour long massage. Apparently after the treatments I looked relaxed, my skin was soft and I was pretty much spaghetti. The rest of the evening was pretty much soaking in my own spa (also a present), and sinking to sleep like a rock.

Spa pools all to myself.
Spa pools all to myself.

Had I had more time, still up and running maori village of Whakarewarewa would have been on my to-do list next. I wasn’t not that interested in the traditional maori dance (performed just for tourists), but more of their hangi food, steam boxes in the natural fumes, again very much like in Beppu. For some reason there were no restaurants in sight in Rotorua making this traditional (and cheap to make!) fare. It is rather sad to see McDonald’s and Subway everywhere, and not a problem to find pizza either, but when you try to find some original food, things get a tad tricky (unless sandwiches and fries are the traditional foods). So far I have not encountered any authentic kiwi food on my trip! I have noticed that they call sweet potato “kumara” and like to deep fry ‘em, and that kiwi burger might have lamb meat (why not, there’s 40 million sheep in the country!), but that’s about it. I wonder if I even get the chance! Anyway, Rotorua is a great destination for anyone looking for a bit of relaxation, some mineral rich water treatments, and spa life. Besides that, it’s a good base for adventuring to Hobbiton, Waitomo caves, and Taupo sky diving.

Wellington

The trip from Nelson to Wellington was rather nice, with a few hours in the cute harbour town Picton, where the ferry across the Cook strait left from. The ferry trip, lasting almost 4 hours, was very much like the ones we have from Helsinki to Tallinn, the only differences being that on this route the water was distractingly clear blue, there was no drunk people and no tax free. Winner winner! We arrived in the capital city of NZ, population 204,000 just in time for the night market. Shuttle bus from the ferry to the train station, another bus to the hostel, and I was hungry for some street food.

Cruisin' to the North.
Cruisin’ to the North.

I read somewhere that Wellington is like the Melbourne of New Zealand, and I did see some similarities: loads of culture, events, street art, hip cool cafes, trendy restaurants. I enjoyed the night market vibes and a waterfront walk before heading to bed in another noisy snoring dorm.

Laneway with hip Soda shop and artisanal chocolate factory. Melbourne vibes!
Laneway with hip Soda shop and artisanal chocolate factory. Melbourne vibes!
Kids skipping.
Kids skipping.

Good thing about cool cities on the weekends is the markets. In the morning I ventured to 2, walking pretty much across town on this quest. Not really knowing what to do, I decided to invest in Weta Workshop tour, giving me more insight in the movie industry and the opportunity to see how the hell they made Lord of the Rings. The tour was very inspiring and interesting, and the temptation to take pictures was almost unbearable! I learned a lot about behind the scenes in such a short time, and seeing Sauron’s costume and weapon, as well as the other weaponry right there in front of me was pretty incredible. The old fangirl in me woke up instantly.

Trolls greeting at the door of Weta Cave.
Trolls greeting at the door of Weta Cave.
King Theodore's armour.
King Theodore’s armour.

After the tour and driving around Miramar and the lovely bay (and stalking Peter Jackson’s house by the sea), I decided to go to the Museum of New Zealand. 4 floors of exhibitions, I was exhausted and overfilled with information afterwards. There was another night market on, and the Chinese New Year fireworks and celebrations. I desperately
needed to charge all my electronics. Next morning, off to Rotorua.

Wellingwood, the heart of New Zealand's movie productions.
Wellingwood, the heart of New Zealand’s movie productions.