#mizealand: Auckland, Hobbiton, Matamata, Tongariro

There are no safe paths in this part of the world. Remember you are over the Edge of the Wild now, and in for all sorts of fun wherever you go. – J.R.R. Tolkien

I’m going on an adventure! 

Well, here I am. After years of daydreaming, months of planning, and weeks of high anticipation, we made it to New Zealand. I will attempt to properly convey how absolutely incredible this trip has been in the past four days.

We woke up very early on Friday morning after a restless night’s sleep and left for the airport. Our good friend Michael was kind enough to drive us. As we were pulling away, I noticed that I forgot to put my glasses on my face and wasn’t wearing my contacts. It was *almost* a horrible way to start the trip.

We flew from Atlanta to Los Angeles and had a long layover at LAX. I thought this would be a good idea for a number of reasons: our luggage could get lost, our flight could be delayed, etc. However, I added the first item on my “what I will do differently next time” list — stay out of LAX as long as possible.

LAX is a terrible place to have a long layover before an international flight. I won’t bore you with the details, but trust me. LAX, if you’re reading this, get it together. Terminal B is a nightmare.

Toward the end of our terrible waiting game, we met a really nice girl from London named Candie who was flying to Auckland to visit her brother. The last two hours of our wait went by faster during our conversation.

After what seemed like an eternity, we boarded Air New Zealand flight 1.

We purchased premium economy seats — not first class, but a little nicer than economy. If you are every planning to fly to New Zealand, let me say this: these seats are worth every penny you will pay.

We sat in pod-like seats that reclined and were spacious and comfortable. We had complementary blankets, eye masks, pillows, and socks. Our flight attendant Deb was the BEST. Air New Zealand, if you’re reading this, Deb is a gem. Deb brought us hot towels which felt like heaven after spending the entire day in a stale, uncomfortable airport. We ate dinner on the plane (which was delicious) and fell asleep effortlessly.

I woke up a few times and looked out the window at the pitch-black night sky and our massive plane hovering over the Pacific Ocean. It was a little overwhelming.

Around 5am we woke up, looked out the window, and saw the most astonishing sunrise I’ve ever seen in my life. Blackness, and then a thin orange line fading to blue. It was breathtaking — and one of the first sunrises in the world for that day.

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If I take one more step, it will be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been.

We landed in Auckland and had a remarkably smooth transition into customs and picking up our rental car.

Time for me to brag on Christopher for a few moments:

This guy drove a manual car with opposite orientation all over Auckland. And he’s been driving it all over the North Island of New Zealand. He’s a beast.

Anyway, we made it to our hotel in the Princes Wharf area of Auckland. We walked around and explored the city, fought jet lag, and had a good lunch at a pub while watching highlights from a rugby match. Auckland is a beautiful city. My biggest observation from Auckland is that it is the first place I’ve been both hot and cold at the same time. The sun is very hot; the breeze is very cold. It happens all at once. It’s an odd sensation.

We got settled into our hotel rooms around 4:30pm, sat down on the bed for just a minute, and woke up at 2:30 am.

We didn’t exactly plan for that to happen, but had no problem falling asleep and waking up at 6:30 am.

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In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit. 

We left Auckland and drove straight to the Hobbiton Movie Set. The drive from Auckland to Matamata was absolutely gorgeous.  Miles and miles of rolling hills, alarmingly green grass, and sheep and cattle farms. It was beautiful.

Unfortunately, hills + twists and turns + riding as a passenger where I’m used to driving = carsick MC. As soon as we got to the movie set, I got a sprite and immediately felt better.

We loaded the tour bus at 12:15, and entered the magical set of the Shire.

Y’all.

This was surreal. That’s the best word we can use to describe it. Other than the hobbit holes, there is only one thing that is artificial in this land, and that is the oak tree above Bag End. Peter Jackson was pretty adamant about the oak tree being above Bag End.

Everything else was 100% Pure New Zealand.

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No filter, folks.

We wandered around the Shire, visited hobbit holes, took pictures, saw the party tree, and settled down in the Green Dragon with complementary beverages at the end of the tour.

I’ve loved Tolkien since I was a kid. I’ve read and re-read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I love the movies. These books were a huge part of my childhood, and no doubt shaped me in to who I am today. Being able to see this part of “Middle-Earth” as it was portrayed on film was truly astounding.

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Riddles in the Dark

The next day, we left Matamata and drove to the Waitomo Caves. This, again, was an astonishingly beautiful drive. Rain was starting to move in, so visiting caves ended up being the perfect thing to do.

The Waitomo Cave tour was incredible. We ventured down into the cave and saw the part known as the Cathedral. Parts of the formations looked like pipe organs, and the formations attributed to a nearly perfect acoustic sound. Our tour guide sang a traditional Maori love song and it sounded like we were in a professional studio. After the Cathedral, we walked a little further and got in boats for the rest of the tour.

These caves contain Arachnocampa luminosa: glowworms. They are unique to New Zealand.

We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the cave, so I borrowed this from the website. And this is exactly what we saw:

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[Photo from waitomo.com]
To be honest, it didn’t feel real. I felt like I was in a ride at Disney World or in the movie Avatar. It was astonishing. Thousands of little worms live in these caves and glow to attract food. They are beautiful.

Adventures are not all pony-rides in May-sunshine 

We left the glowworm caves and drove to Tongariro National Park. By this point, the rain was falling hard and visibility was poor. We pulled up to our hotel, Chateau Tongariro, hopeful to see Mt. Ruapehu in the background, but saw only gray. Rain and fog and clouds and wind.

We planned to visit the Tongariro National Park to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. This is a day-long hike, one of the best in the world. When we arrived at the hotel, we saw that the track was closed that day and the next due to inclement weather. Bummer.

We ate dinner and went to bed, feeling a tiny bit disappointed but still overwhelmed at the amazing things we’ve experienced so far because we’re in New Zealand. 

We woke up and had a fantastic breakfast at the hotel. Bacon, sausages, all kinds of cheeses, crackers, pastries, croissants. Kiwis know how to eat breakfast.

Because we couldn’t do the crossing today, we decided to walk to the visitor center and see what else was in the park. We decided to hike to Taranaki Falls, and it was a good decision.

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SNOW!

I was not expecting to take a hike in a snow-covered volcanic valley today. The rain we got yesterday has morphed into snow/sleet. Toward the end of our hike, we got hit pretty hard with some sleet and strong winds. My legs are still stinging.

By this point, I’m sure you are wondering why am taking the time in the middle of my trip to write such an intricate post. Well, right at this moment, I am sitting in a big comfy chair in front of a fireplace in the lobby of our hotel watching the snow fall from our window, which is what I’ve been doing for the past two hours. The locals are flummoxed by this weather. It’s spring over here — think if Americans saw a huge snowfall in May.

Christopher is across from me reading The Hobbit. It’s cozy and wonderful.

We’re here at Tongariro until Friday. Fingers crossed for clear weather so we can do the crossing. If not, we do have some time at the end of our trip and we might try to fit it in, but we’ll play it by ear. At least we’ll have a beautiful drive to Wellington on Friday.

Kia ora!

-Mary Chase

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