April 27, 2008

The North Island of New Zealand

If you happened to pass by the blog on Saturday night (Sunday morning our time), you saw a quick post that we were about to go skydiving. Just after we had zipped up our jumpsuits and been fitted into our harnesses, clouds rolled in and the jump was canceled. Maybe next time we should post after we jump.

We managed to skip winter this year, or so we thought. In February, during Carnaval in Brazil, I would check weather forecasts in New York and feel sorry for all you poor suckers stuck in the cold. Now while you are enjoying warmer temperatures, spring flowers, and baseball season, Jared and I are in a topsy-turvy place where it is almost May and the trees are covered in red and gold. While I always equated "south" with "warmer," it gets colder the farther south we drive. Cry me a river, you are all saying. I know.

Like the US, New Zealand is best seen from your own set of wheels. Since our budget is squeezed tighter than Lindsay Lohan's jeans, we rented the cheapest camper van possible. Instead of a fancy new RV, our ride is the size of a Volkswagen bus with a convertible table and bench, double bed, and a pump sink in the back. To save cash, we sleep in free campsites when possible. Suddenly hot showers have become a luxury. Our 1994 Toyota Hiace can only go about 20 mph uphill, and every time it starts in the morning, we breathe a sigh of relief. Jared is stuck doing all the driving because I don't know how to drive stick shift, but he has become quite adept at it, and on the left side of the road, no less. (Mike Soldner, you would be amazed!)

New Zealand in the fall is stunning, but I am sure it is beautiful all year round. By missing summer peak season, we are being treated to gorgeous foliage, lighter crowds, and slightly lower prices. We need all the discounts we can get--NZ is by far the most expensive country we have visited. Gasoline is $6 a gallon (and we use about $50 of gas each day), a cup of coffee is at least $2.50, and restaurants are out of the question. Instead of our $25 per day budget each, we have been spending about $60 per day here, not including excursions. But the views are free, and priceless.

After flying from tropical Fiji, we were greeted by a chilly downpour in Auckland. At the airport, we had our tent and hiking boots inspected as part of New Zealand's biosecurity, which keeps out foreign algae and pests out of NZ's ecosystem. With 1.3 million people, Auckland is NZ's largest city, and the home of 25% of the country's residents. Yet it still feels like a small, manageable city. Unfortunately, we only had 24 hours in town, and it was pouring for most of them. Oh well.

With only one week to spend in the North Island, we headed down to Rotorua for a dose of Maori culture. We visited Whakarewa, a Maori village sitting on an active thermal area. (Believe it or not, that is the village's nickname, short for Te Whakarewarewatanga O Te Ope Taua A Wahiao,' meaning “The uprising of the warriors of Wahiao".) It was interesting to learn that the Maori language is actually having a renaissance, after nearly dying out 20 years ago. Throughout New Zealand, government signs and plaques are shown with English and the Maori translations.

Itching to explore New Zealand's famous terrain, Jared went hiking (or "tramping," as they say here) in Tongariro National Park, said to be one of the most beautiful day hikes in the country. Tongariro is a dual World Heritage area, recognized for its three volcanic peaks and Maori cultural significance. He hiked right by Mount Ngauruhoe, which was used as Mt. Doom in the climax of The Lord of the Rings. (I stayed behind. When traveling and staying in a van, it's hard not to spend 24 hours a day together.)

From Tongariro we made our way down to Wellington, the capital city. If you are going to be in Wellington, don't miss the outstanding Te Papa museum, where we experienced simulated earthquake. (Better a simulation than the real thing, which is all too possible here.) The next day we took a 3-hour ferry across the Cook Strait to the South Island. Here are our photos from the North Island.

Before we left on the trip, my boss warned me that we may be missing out on life while we were gone. "But Charlie," I replied, "this is life." Still, we are missing out on some special times, especially our friends' weddings. So we'd like to send our love to Andrew and Caroline, Jack and Davi, and the newest newlyweds, Alex and Ximena, and Will and Dina. Congratulations, you guys.

If you follow the trip by email or Facebook, check out the blog! We've added a snazzy header, trip statistics, and a nifty clock that shows our local time. Thanks to Tal for all your help.

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