New Zealand - from Auckland:
Frankfurt, Germany is pretty close to the opposite point on the globe from New Zealand. We boarded the plane on the afternoon of December 27th and arrived in Auckland on the 29th! I think I slept about 5 hours due to turbulence, meals, decent movies, and getting up associated with trying to stay hydrated on such a lengthy voyage.
As if traveling to the other side of the world didn't take long enough, there were two stopovers totalling 9 hours. Seven were spent in Korea where we hung out in the lounge using the internet and eating Korean noodle dishes with fried eggs. Because of my hunger there I still have in my possesion 6 currencies: Canadian, US, Euro, Korean, Fijian, New Zealand. I have no idea what it all amounts to anymore.
This stopover was a pleasant surprise. "Is that New Zealand?" ~ "No, I don't think so." ~ "Where are we??" ~ "This is your captain speaking. We will be landing in Fiji in just under 20 minutes..." ~ "Oh..." Yeah, Fiji was nice, if only for a short stop. The air was warm and humid - a real change from the cold weather in Germany! But we reboarded within a couple hours and flew to New Zeland.
Airport dsecurity was Super-Fun! >:-( Because I had an Amsterdam stamp in my passport (from my 30 minute stopover on the way to Germany), I was directed away from the stream of carefree travelers toward the stainless steel room. Katrin had to join me because our bags were on the same trolley, so we sat alone in a room that could hold a lavish wedding reception. It was like 1984 with it white walls and floors, steel furniture and operating tables, a few computer consoles against the walls, and one door at the far end! My heart nearly stopped when a woman came through the door snapping on a pair of rubber gloves. All because of the stupid stamp! And all I did in Amsterdam was race madly through the airport to make my connecting flight, which began boarding as my previous plane was unloading.
In the end... we got through without much fuss. (When we unpacked later, we realized that we'd packed a few items with us that might have garnered a fine or two - close one.) (NZ is pretty tight on foreign food being brought in and I had two food-type stocking stuffers that I'd neglected to declare. Jailed for pancake mix, news at 11.)
After exploring the area around our hostel, we got to know a few of the residents. The bid deal of course was New Year's and everyone was planning to do something fun. Unfortunately, when it came down to the evening before the big celebration, no one could agree on a plan or what was the best destination. Too much compromising and not enough communication! But Katrin and I accompanied a few people who wanted to go right downtown and see the fireworks at the Skytower. Of course, no one knew how to get there and once we arrived no one could figure out where to watch them from. The two of us split from the crew who were all intent on checking out the bar scene and headed directly to the tower. From acroos the street we looked straight up at the top where at midnight, a 10 minute display fired out in a circle, SIDEWAYS from the roof of the tallest building in the southern hemisphere. Pretty cool. I have never seen fireworks that were NOT aimed UP!
We bought a 20-year old light blue station wagon. Three weeks later, the back window seal was punctured by the hydraulic post that used to hold the hatchback door up. Two weeks later, the engine overheated, blowing a hose and the head gasket. Driving around with 10 bottles of water became a necessity. But it's fun driving around on the wrong side of the car on the wrong side of the road.
Definitely one of the great hilights of the trip so far, Waitomo is an area southwest of Auckand famous for is caverns, which offer a look at the ancient history of the land as well as adventure! We rolled into town, saw some angora rabbits, and went to the Waitomo museum where we learned about the history of the town and the country from its origins beneath the sea. All of this was in waiting for our time to arrive when we would meet with our tour group, which would descend beneath the earth on innertubes!
After a rugged game of sort-of-Backgammon, our group was called! We followed our guide to the back of the property where we were handed heavy duty wetsuits complete with booties, outer shorts, and helmets with headlights - cool. Everyone piled into a rusty cargo van that drove us to the tube depot. We selected a tube that would fit each butt nicely, practiced sitting in it, practiced sitting in a connected line, and finally braved the reverse-jump technique into a stream. Then we got back into the van, which was impossibly stuffed now with our tubes, and headed to the caves.
At the end of a path was a rocky depression that a tree-loving hiker would easily pass by without taking much notice. But we walked down into it and saw, hidden beneath a grassy awning, a wide crack that lead into darkness. One by one we entered it and saw with our headlamps a stony foyer with water trickling along the floor down into an echoing chasm. He found a rocky seat and were oriented further, begining with sharing out name, hometown, and favourite ice cream. "Alright," the second guide yelled, "Let's go. You first. Just walk down until you need to jumo into the water."
When we weren't splashing through narrow stone corridors with our tubes under our arms, we would wade into the underground stream system sitting on our tubes. We stopped at water-worn cavities in the walls where, if you hum just the right way, an amplified echo fills the tunnel system for miles! We jumped off high precipices over waterfalls into lower streams - my tube was not so robust, so when I did this, I submerged!!
One of the ultimate experiences - for this journey as well as my life - is the area along the way where the cave ceiling extends almost 100 feet. Stalagmites, stalactites, and strange, alien formations surrounded me. The water was black and the celing could not be reached with my headlamp. The guides told everyone to turn off their lights. And high above, the ceiling glittered with a million tiny green specks, as if the roof has disappeared to reveal the starry sky on the clearest, darkest night.
We sailed on our tubes for ages looking up at this natural marvel, some of us floating alone, others hand in hand or foot in hand... until the current carried us to the mouth of the cave. The bright light of day diminished the glowing green stars, but when our eyes adjusted, we saw the lush forest crowding over an estuary that we floated into. Thus ended the strangest excursion I have ever taken part of (not including those where I almost died at the plans of Drew).
The Cormadel is a 2-day long bump that juts northward from the north island. It is one of the most beautiful long-cuts you can take on your way to the east coast. Winding roads, cliffside vantages, lush native forest, hills, maountains, and water whose colour epitomizes the word 'aquamarine!' We drove slowly and took in so many pictures that words by any hand will never do them justice.