Saturday, 22 July 2017

"The Antipodean Excursion" 3: There and Back Again

Bit of a mega-post, this, mostly because I haven't got round to updating anything at all over the last couple of weeks, so there's lots to catch up on.

Instalment 3 begins on the 7 July, with possibly the most exciting day on our entire trip so far (disclaimer: anyone whose interest in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and other associated Tolkien works is that of a normal person rather than an obsessive fan might want to skip this next part). It was on that day, of course, that Simon and I visited Hobbiton of the Shire, the fabled location used in Peter Jackson's film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. The place itself is accessed via buses from Matamata: it's part of a huge rolling green landscape belonging to a farming family called the Alexanders. Peter Jackson discovered it in the late 90s and decided that the area was perfect for Hobbiton; their 3 main requirements in terms of the place's "look" (besides the obvious green hills and undulating scenery) were a huge tree that could represent Party Tree, a lake (with a bridge), and a big lawn in front of the tree where Bilbo's party could take place. The Alexander farm location had two of these three features - there was a swamp where the lawn should have been, but that was easily fixed. So Jackson makes The Lord of the Rings, both he and Mr Alexander make lots of money, Hobbiton gets pulled down, and everyone goes home happy. When Jackson returned to the site to film the trilogy that makes up The Hobbit, he and the Alexanders agreed to leave the set standing so fans could visit it and enjoy the experience of seeing such an iconic film location. God, I'm glad they did.

Visiting Hobbiton felt like stepping from winter into spring: the weather was fine rather than stunning, but everywhere is so green (and it is almost all real vegetation, with the exception of fake leaves on one tree) that it seems like a more vivid, more colourful, more solidly built reality than the real world is - paradoxical indeed, given it's an artificial construct! The level of detail that has gone into the set, as you can imagine, is phenomenal - with each unique hobbit hole granted its individual quirks. You can usually tell visiting each one (and I think there's 44?) what that hobbit's job is: the bee-keeper has jars of honey on a stand outside, one sells cheeses, one is a carpenter, and so on. And then there's one or two comfortably retired hobbits who simply have jugs of ale and plates of cake next to their rocking-chairs in the garden; theirs are usually the houses nearest the Green Dragon, the local tavern. The signs are all painted; the books you glimpse through the windows are all real; they actually grow vegetables in the vegetable patches throughout the year and the staff get to eat them; the chess board on display in one hobbit's garden was a real hobbit-sized chess set. Our enthusiasm for this magical place knew no bounds (yes, I did indeed recreate the "we're going on an adventure!" moment in exactly the right spot...), an enthusiasm which we shared with our tour guide, an English guy who had come out to New Zealand specifically because he wanted to show people round Hobbiton. I might have found my new calling... This already pretty perfect day was topped off with a visit to the Green Dragon, as hale and hearty as you'd imagine, where you can have a full meal but where we simply opted for their own brand of stout - a brew so rare it is in fact only sold there and nowhere else in the world.

After Hobbiton, still giddily excited (and walking away with a Green Dragon pint mug and a Lord of the Rings location guidebook in our hands), our next stop was Rotorua. A decent-sized city on the shores of a lake bearing the same name, Rotorua is mostly famous for its geothermal activity, geysers and hot mud pools, which have the effect of making it probably the smelliest place we will visit in New Zealand (it's all the sulphur). This did have the bonus, though, of meaning our hostel had the opportunity of a private hot tub for its guests - a bit more luxury than you'd usually expect, isn't it? - and the city itself is positively overrun with spas of various sorts. One evening we took ourselves to the most famous, the Polynesian Spa, which was just around the corner from our hostel; it overlooks Lake Rotorua which means that if you're there in the p.m., as we were, you can watch the sun set over the lake and various seabirds fly over its ochre-lit waters while you yourself steam away in a hot pool. The combination of the hot water beneath you and the cool winter breeze against your bare neck and head is giddily relaxing.

Other activities in Rotorua included walking underneath huge cavernous Redwood trees and up the Pohaturoa track, which takes you up to a viewpoint over the town and the lake, with all its steam rising up from the earth. New Zealand being such a volcanic place does make you feel closer to all the Earth's various mysterious processes - like you can see the cracks at the edges. You get much the same effect from visiting Kuirau Park, a large open expanse with various cracks and geysers, and walkways running through the middle of them (see left). Very atmospheric. Walking around the lake a little - past unknown waterbirds like black swans and the like - brought us to another feature Rotorua boasts: Ohinemutu Village, a Maori village with various meeting houses and statues, and an Anglican-Maori church slapbang in the middle of it, one of the oddest architectural hybrids I've seen.

After a couple of days in Rotorua we met up with our uncle Steve and set off on a bit of a road-trip. He's lived in New Zealand for about 12 years now and had a number of exciting ideas about things we could do and places we could go. The next few days saw us journey from campsite to campsite, often staying in cabins and travel lodge type things that were usually a bit more out of the way, but frequently with gorgeous attractions very close by. Our first night involved a moonlit dip in a geothermal pool only a few metres from where we were staying (not as warm as it could have been, really, given it had rained so much recently ... but being in the dark underneath the trees as steam rises around you and with only the moon's light to see by is quite something nonetheless). Another place we stopped off at was Orakei Korako, between Lake Rotorua and Lake Taupo, billed as New Zealand's most impressive geothermal attraction. And it really was quite something - fabulous geysers and mud pools, hot water running over rock and creating spectacular rainbow-like displays of coloured algae and silica. The sounds around you are incredible, as though the earth itself is gurgling just beneath you. Maori mythology follows you wherever you go, too, with chilling names like 'The Devil's Throat'. Passing back through Rotorua also allowed us to visit an adventure park called "Skyline Rotorua", in which we had the fun experience of the luge ride, hurtling down slopes in small sled-like things. I say 'hurtling', but I was fairly timid in my speed compared to some die-hards. It's good fun though.

The plan was to drive past Rotorua and over to the south-east, towards a lake called Waikaremoana. This is where the best-laid plans of mice and men started to go awry, however, in that roads in New Zealand - particularly those that go over mountain passes - quite often end up closed because of landslides and the like. When travelling along these roads, you quickly see why, as they tend to wind through steep slopes on both sides, one stretching up above the road, and the other plummeting down below. Steve's not even remotely a careless driver, but it's nonetheless nerve-wracking to be on such roads just as a matter of course. But that's part of what makes them so appealing! Anyway, the way across to Waikaremoana was blocked, so we headed east instead, travelling back along the Bay of Plenty around a very remote part of New Zealand called the East Cape. We are talking seriously back-of-beyond mountain roads here, making this a properly thrilling drive. Eventually you reach the furthest point east you can possibly go: the East Cape Lighthouse. As the furthest bit of land heading east - with the exception of East Island, just slightly out to sea (above) - this is actually the first bit of land to see the sun rise every day. That is to say, each new day starts here before it reaches anywhere else. We saw the sun set rather than rise, but it was nonetheless a pretty amazing location. You feel like you're on the edge of the world.

We spent the night in Gisborne, a city on the east coast with gorgeous beaches looking out to the Pacific. The waves were quite rough at this point, as terrible storms and other bad weather - snowfalls and landslides - were sweeping across the North Island, with the exception of the East Cape, meaning that we had generally avoided the worst of it. So we looked out over our blue serene sky and sea, at the spot where Captain Cook first arrived on the Endeavour in 1769, and wondered quite what all the fuss was about in the rest of the country. On arriving in Napier, further down the coast, and seeing just how stormy and tempestuous the waves were, we conceded that perhaps everybody else had a point about the weather. But that didn't stop us enjoying this quite remarkable town. Napier was, until 1931, relatively unremarkable: another coastal port. The devastating earthquake which struck the area in February of that year, however, soon put an end to all that. It was a major disaster which completely flattened the whole town and left it a charred wreck. That the city was rebuilt and up on its feet before long is a credit to the people of the town, and the Art Deco style in which everything was constructed means it has a really unique spirit these days, a spirit it actively embraces in its museums and galleries and touristy shops. Over an arch overlooking the sea, you can read the words of JM Barrie: 'Courage is the thing; all goes if courage goes'. Wise words indeed.

Napier was our last stop before returning back to Steve's house. He works as a lecturer in philosophy and astronomy at Massey University in Palmerston North, but lives about half an hour's drive from 'Palmy' (as the locals call it), in Himatangi Beach. Yes, this is a town on the beach. In fact, it's more or less built upon sand - though you wouldn't know it, as it's sand that now has a thin layer of grass and topsoil over it. Steve's place is great and very expansive: there's an observatory for his astronomical pursuits, hammocks in the garden, rolling slopes of trees and grass... and the beach very close by, a great spot for an afternoon run, particularly if you want to come across a seal emerging from the sea.

[Interlude: It was on the 16th of July that my equilibrium and composure was somewhat shaken by the punch-the-air news that JODIE WHITTAKER IS THE DOCTOR!!!!! *ahem*. So that was quite exciting. Possibly more exciting than finding out I got a first. Anyway, moving on.]

The next bit to mention, then, is our second road trip away - this time a round loop departing from and arriving back at Himatangi. Term is about to start soon, but Steve still had time for a bit more exploring, so we promptly revved up the engine and headed off. This time round we had several goals in mind. First off, having headed east last time, we took ourselves off to the west coast, this time heading up towards a huge and iconic volcano called Mount Taranaki. It looms above everything around it, because it's the only high point for miles and miles, sitting as it does atop low-lying plains. And it is as perfectly formed a volcano shape as you can imagine: very like Fuji in that respect. We drove as far up the slope as we could (there's a car park about half-way up) and were rewarded with stunning views both up the mountain to its snow-topped summit and down the mountain to the expansive plains below, and out towards the Tongariro National Park in the distance (home to the majestic mountains of Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngaurohoe - two of which were used to stand in for Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings, though Ngaurohoe is the one used for the recognisable 'Mount Doom' silhouette while they filmed some other scenes on Ruapehu's slopes).

From Taranaki we drove over - I keep saying 'we', as though we contributed to any of the driving! I suppose we, er, did some navigating and buying of snacks - towards those mountains, via the town of Tauramanui. The weather was a little too overcast to really try a serious drive into the Tongariro area, though, and we had to banish thoughts of attempting the Tongariro Alpine Crossing - a famous hike over the area that is Mordor in the films - from our minds. On the plus side, we drove along a very back-of-beyond road called the Forgotten Road Highway, all lush verdant trees and mountainous slopes, towards a tiny little place called Whangamomona, which, brilliantly, declared itself an independent republic in 1989 as an act of protest against boundary changes. The campsite we stayed at was one Steve had visited a few times over the years, with the same elderly couple running it, and they remembered him. Which was rather sweet. The views from such a high-altitude location were properly phenomenal when we woke up in the morning: all mist-swathed valleys, poplars lining the edges of hills, Ruapehu in the distance, the cries of exotic birds wheeling in the air ... It was the perfect time to try out a drone flight. Steve has a new drone which he wanted to break in and so we gave it a whirl that morning. The footage was incredible, it'll go up on my Facebook at some point hopefully.

From Whangamomona we headed towards Lake Taupo, one of the most famous lakes in the country. It's a supervolcanic caldera akin to the one in Yosemite (and when it last erupted, it's thought that some of its ash fell on Ancient Rome). So if this bad boy were ever to erupt, most of Oceania would be wiped out in one fell swoop. Still, we didn't let that dampen our spirits as we slept in a hostel not far from the waterfront, and enjoyed our vistas of the lake. Lots of things can kill you, and you can't stay at home just because a supervolcano might erupt one day. Taupo is another place famous for its geothermal activity, so we visited a spa at nearby Wairakei, where incredible mood lighting - all yellows and golds - casts shadows over the water as it springs out from hot rock and forms pools. This felt more natural and organic than the Polynesian Spa's more swimming-pool type efforts, and it was the perfect way to spend the evening. Also impressive is a local phenomenon called the Huka Falls - 'huka' is Maori for 'foam', which aptly describes how churned-up the huge volume of water gets as it pours through a narrow chasm. I think there's something like 220,000 litres of water pouring over the falls per second. Gobsmacking.

Another experience and a half was in store for us at Waitomo, site of some of New Zealand's most impressive caves. Unsurprisingly, a whole industry has sprung up around them - mostly revolving around caving (or 'spelunking', as I like to call it. What? it's a real word!), and floating down the streams that flow through these underground caverns. What the Waitomo Caves are really famous for, however, is their glow-worms. So once you're all wetsuit-ed and helmeted up, and you've got a big inflatable rubber tube in your hand, and you've plunged over a waterfall into pitch-black water and the only light you have is the gleam of your own head-torch... you turn that torch off, and you look up, and all you can see is the ethereal otherworldly glow of these bizarre creatures. They produce this light to catch insects they then eat, but you soon forget that as you look up at the majestic map of starry constellations they produce in their little clusters. And you don't mind that you're cold and wet, or that you're in the gaping chasms of the Earth. Not one bit.

Well, that's more or less a wrap for this post. We stayed the last night in Taumaranui and before long we'd made it back to Steve's. There will be more to come over the next week or two, so stay tuned!

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