03/16/11 - Auckland
The Auckland hostel, Bamber House, was a great place to spend our final days in New Zealand. We had our own private double en suite within walking distance of wonderful eateries in the neighborhood of Mt. Eden. Our first evening in the big city was laid back since we were still recovering from spending most of our day at Bethells Beach. We grabbed a bite of Thai food and some licks of gelato before succumbing to the siren call of blissful sleep. Thankfully, the bed was fresh and clean.
If you thought our geeky Xena adventures were over, you thought wrong (and frankly, you don't know us too well). We still had some time traveling left to do, back to a time of ancient Gods, warlords, and kings. The road there, however, was not so easy to find.
We knew we wanted to get to Hanua Falls, which was about 50 km southeast of Auckland, but didn’t exactly know the way. We had a vague map with a waterfall icon marking the spot. Aside from that, no road names, no towns, no directions whatsoever. But we persevered, following our instincts…or rather Katie’s instincts, since I have the directional sensibilities of a spinning top.
We headed south on the highway, pulling off at the nearest exit to our destination. We then drove in the general direction of the map icon, eventually finding a road named Hanua. Hmmmm…that sounded promising… A few miles later we happened upon exactly where we wanted to be: Hanua Falls.
The falls resided within a nature center with many other natural wonders to behold. But we weren’t there to spend the day. We only had two full days in Auckland before departing, and we had a large checklist to cross off. With that in mind, we made a beeline for the waterfall, passing by a handful of school buses along the way. We saw some teenagers prancing about the grounds but, as luck would have it, the falls were completely abandoned. We had the entire idyllic scene to ourselves. A miniature piece of paradise.
I stood witness to Hanua Falls’ subtle power pouring over the cliff side and felt as though I’d wandered into a scene from Fantasy Island, or should I say Xena: Warrior Princess? The pool was, after all, the very place where Xena and Gabrielle took a swim together at the beginning of "Altared States." Naturally, I dove right in. Well…not exactly. It was more like “mustered up strength to withstand subzero temperatures before wading in with chattering teeth.” That was the coldest water I’ve ever swam in!! Even the wading ducks had blue bills! Nevertheless, I gritted my teeth and slid into the frigid water. Katie, having tested the water herself, couldn’t believe I was actually in it. But, as with any challenge I pose (overt or otherwise), she now had to follow suit.
To this day I have no idea if that park allowed people to swim in the water or not. But there we were, all alone, and I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to fully enjoy that picturesque setting. And, with a little propping, maneuvering, and creative framing, we managed to snap some rather memorable photos to boot! (Please see Exhibit A)
After our brush with hypothermia and a quick toweling off, we drove out to Mangere Domain, one of Auckland’s many gorgeous parks that rests atop an ancient volcano. There I learned that below the bustling city of Auckland lies a volcanic field; a dormant geothermal zone that’s resulted in numerous vents and cones peppering the city’s skyline. It was surreal wandering up, down, and over the ridges of a volcano resting in the heart of the city. Long since had the lava cooled. Now the ground flourished with life. Thick, succulent grass carpeted the valley floor while we crept along, searching. But what were we searching for? I think you already know the answer to that…
Mangere Domain’s unique geology resulted in a rare gift – a convenient location that provides luscious scenery while simultaneously shutting out the 21st century. Being there was like stepping back in time. An uncannily perfect place to film a show like “Xena: Warrior Princess.”
Katie brandished the kindle like a compass as we walked down memory lane. We evaluated landmarks and matched up shots while the sun bore down upon us with the fire of Hades. We were sweaty and weary, but definitely enjoying the views. As our quest continued we found the very spot where Xena first appeared on screen, where she crossed swords with Najara, where Icus was nearly executed, and where Alti screamed from the top of a hill: “It’s all about me and what I know!”
Mind blowing, isn’t it? I know that right now, as you read this, you’re filled with extreme jealousy. I can’t blame you. Few have experienced the miracle of mega-nerdiness and the resulting euphoria it provides.
After hours of exploring the many hills and trails of Mangere Domain, we were thoroughly tired, hungry, and more than ready to put an end to our Xena pilgrimage. We showered up and rested back at the hostel before marching to the top of Mt. Eden that evening. Mt. Eden, like Mangere, was also a dormant volcano covered in thick green grass. Unlike Mangere, however, it supplied a beautiful 360º view of Auckland. A short hike up and suddenly the city was unfurled at our feet. Looking in all directions I realized it reminded me a lot of Seattle with one distinct difference: The scores of volcanic cones peaking out of the metropolis. It definitely set this place apart.
While sitting atop the crater’s edge we watched the sun slowly drop behind the distant mountains. The sky blushed at its passing before paling in moonlight. We strolled home under stars.
It was our final day in New Zealand.
We awoke early and drove to Ponsonby for breakfast. French toast with ham and caramelized banana – the description alone defines greatness! We then steered our way through the city streets into downtown Auckland and parked for the day. Our walk led us to Aotea Square where a gigantic billboard and ticket booth advertised the ongoing Auckland Arts Festival. After a perusal of the events and some brief debate we decided to fork over some of our remaining New Zealand cash for two tickets to see “The Sound of the Ocean” that evening. What better way to end our trip to an island country than to hear the sounds of the ocean portrayed in percussionary prose?
With our night planned, we set off to enjoy Auckland on foot. We didn’t fix ourselves to one destination, but followed a wandering path, eager to sample a few tasty morsels of what the city had to offer. Case in point, my feet quickly led me to a gelato shop where I tasted delicioso organic blueberry along with mind-blowing plum Armagnac! While licking our spoons we meandered past an enormous 2011 Rugby World Cup countdown clock. This was not the first countdown clock we’d seen in our travels. New Zealand would be hosting the event in a few months time. It was obviously one of the most exciting things to happen to the country in…well, ever. Hopefully the All Blacks, New Zealand’s premiere team, would make their country proud.
A few moments later we were on the bustling Queens Wharf. Across the way we could see Devonport, a suburb of Auckland, looking very quaint across the bay. We decided against taking a boat ride, considering our previous brushes with sea sickness, and opted to continue our leisurely stroll. Auckland’s beautiful historic ferry terminal called to me so we made our way over where, lo and behold, I happened to find another gelato shop! It took me all of five seconds to decide to get more gelato. Why not? It was the last day of my vacation. It was hot and muggy outside. Why deny myself the mystical cooling magic of lemon gelato? I felt it’s healing powers as we continued our way through the city.
Despite our urban surroundings, we were granted one last surprise walk through a lush New Zealand forest when we entered Auckland Domain. It had been many days since we’d been within the woods, and I nearly cried at the unexpected joy it gave me. The roar of traffic diminished to a whisper when we stepped into that familiar beauty. And what’s more, as if I’d wished it, a flight-footed fantail came swooping down to follow us along the trail. That brief hike harkened back to our many weeks in New Zealand and it felt as though the country were thanking us for visiting; inviting us to come back again. I’d like nothing better.
We decided to rest in the grass next to the Auckland Museum rather than go inside. I climbed a gnarled tree and dangled from a branch while Katie lay below. Grey clouds rolled in and a faint chill took to the air. We drifted toward the Botanic Gardens and entered greenhouses filled with vibrant scents and colors. Rain was falling as we made our way into Fernz Fernery for a lazy stroll, then through the courtyard into the Winter Gardens. I marveled at a giant tree, still living after it’d been split apart by a lightning bolt. Then I enjoyed a quiet moment talking with some nearby fowl who looked like they were descendants of Mother Goose.
As we marched back across the city the clouds billowed and opened like a tap. Full downpour was upon us. We ran from awning to awning, trying to stay dry, but our effort was futile. We were nearly soaked through by the time we got back to the car. We raced home to dry off and grab some grub before the show that night. Time was tight, but we managed to enjoy some more Thai food (the Thai food in New Zealand is amazing) before zipping back for the show.
“The Sound of the Ocean” is a performance designed and developed by a Taiwanese troupe of Buddhist drummers. The show is in five acts without an intermission. Each act represents water with the players using movement and percussion alone. With taut drums and heavy gongs, the men and women demonstrated the essence of rain, waves, and the deep droning of the sea. It was both calming and exhilarating to watch. The synchronicity was intense. The constant movement, which ranged from frenzied to sedate, was extremely controlled and precise. The artists dripped with sweat by the end.
It was a wonderful show and a great way to spend our final evening in the city. We walked back to the car very slowly listening to the revelry in the streets. Music poured from pubs. Laughter flowed through the chilly air. It was a friendly and welcoming sound. Kiwis seem charming even in drunken rabbles. That was the astounding thing about this country – no matter where you were, you felt safe. The people were genuine. The land, valued. And from its most remote locations to its biggest cities the air always tasted crisp and clean. The everyday acts of seeing, eating, and breathing all meant more to me here then they had anywhere else.
I was teary eyed by the time we reached the car.
Our belongings were strewn all over the room. All available pieces of luggage were opened and emptied, each one to be used to their fullest extent. Before we could pack, however, we had to consider a couple of things: Number of bags per person and weight. Tip the scales too high, major fees will apply. But we were clever girls. We were going to beat the system with some fancy maneuvering. Our biggest obstacle: Rocks.
Remember all those rocks we’d collected along the way? My lucky leaf rock? Katie’s glacial boulder? Our volcanic keepsakes from the top of Mt. Doom? Well, we’d managed to collect a weight room’s worth of poundage. Our solution? Divvy up the rocks across several bags to even out the load – and don’t forget to bury those precious stones! The last thing I wanted was for our collection to be confiscated at customs! Oh, the horror. Seriously, I LOVED those rocks. They were New Zealand. Literally. And despite all the trouble they were giving us, they were definitely worth their weight in memories.
We’d discussed our packing stratagem several times over the course of our trip, and as a result we were able to organize and pack our belongings in record time. Four stuffed sausages of luggage later, and we were ready to fall sleep…for four hours.
The alarm went off at 3:15 A.M. With glazed eyes we packed the car one last time before leaving behind our remaining food to future hostel goers (we hope you enjoy the Old Mout Cider!).
I’d confirmed the day before what we needed to do: Drive to the Grand Chancellor Hotel to drop off the rental car and pick up the hotel shuttle to the airport. Since it was the dead of night, the roads were completed deserted. We made it to our destination right quick and bade little Scottie adieu (I’ll miss that turn radius!). We muscled those hefty bags onto our shoulders and waited for the shuttle…and waited…and waited. Our instructions were to wait for a yellow bus, but none was forthcoming. There were several moments of hope when shuttles came rolling into the parking lot, but they weren’t yellow and turned out to be for travel groups, not us lowly rental folk. A few other stragglers gathered with us while a cloud of disappointed slowly spreading over our heads. The minutes ticked away. Enough time passed to make people nervous. Complaints led the hotel staff to send someone out on a special shuttle run. That chosen person ended up being an Indian gentleman who gave us our first taste of rudeness since we’d set foot in New Zealand.
First, he hastily shoved people’s bags into the back of the van without any organization. It filled up fast (surprise!) and we hadn’t even put our bags on board. There were two Brits who also hadn’t put their bags on board. The driver told us we could put ours in the back of the van, at which point I warily look inside trying to figure out exactly how we’re supposed to pull that off. There’s a narrow pathway to our seats with barely enough room for our bodies.
Then he barks out: “If you want to go, then get in!”
I explain my hesitancy: “We have a lot of bags,” which prompts him to finally look at the pile of luggage next to us: 4 bags to check, plus two carry-ons.
He flashes instant annoyance: “Are these all your bags?!”
Right back atcha, Pal: “Yeah, that’s how it works.” I mean, we’re talking international flying here! What do you expect? A briefcase?
That’s when I’m practically shoved into the van with our biggest piece of luggage boxing me in like a sardine. He then abandons us! Katie and the Brits are left to finish loading as best they can (I couldn’t even reach out to help! I felt awful). The bags ended up on laps and piled to the ceiling (how incredibly safe). The Brits are fuming, we all are fuming, as we pull away in haste. Just then the yellow shuttle bus appears!!! No one is aboard, there’s plenty of space, but it’s too late… I gaze out longingly, lumpy luggage gouging at my side as Mr. Nasty drives away like a bandit. We were jerked to and fro all the way to the airport where he gave us no help unloading. That, my friends, is how you don’t earn a tip.
At the airport we found scales to weigh our luggage. We crossed our fingers and gave it a go. We had to do some slight shifting, but in the end they slid in at just under the maximum weight – Success! Check-in went smoothly after that, and we spent the last of our New Zealand dollars on some candy and coffee before boarding our flight.
From the sky we saw the coastline stretching to the north. Believe it or not, we could see the bay of Bethells Beach below – the very place we’d explored days earlier. I snapped a few pictures from the window while we watched the land widen, shrink, and finally fade away in the distance.
We arrived home at 8 A.M., fourteen hours later, with no sleep under our belts. American customs turned out to be a cake walk (So much for Homeland Security. New Zealand customs was like the Gestapo in comparison!). No one questioned us about anything other than the soil on our shoes. And “rocks,” as it turned out, weren’t items we needed to declare. How convenient.
Margaret picked us up at the airport and whisked us home. All I can remember about that drive was how weird it felt to be on the right side of the road again. It took a good week to get over hitting the windshield wipers instead of the turn signal. Déjà vu.
Many months later and I still miss New Zealand every day. I miss the water. I miss the air. I miss the trees and the birds and the cities and the farms. I miss the cheese (damn, their cheese was good!). I miss the freedom it offered and the adventure it provided. One thing this trip has taught me is that you don’t need to be asleep to live your dreams. Dreams are better enjoyed wide awake. Amazing things exist in this world. They’re out there. Touchable. Reachable. Enjoyable to those who can get there. We were lucky enough to have that chance, and I’ll always be thankful for that. No regrets.
We want to say thanks to our family and friends for your continued reading, support, and for experiencing our adventures with us. Your comments and encouragement were always enjoyed and welcome. It was fun to share this trip with all of you.
This blog is dedicated to my beautiful girl, Katie. My best friend in the whole wide world. This trip would’ve been a shadow of what it was without you beside me. Thanks for some of the best memories of my life. You’re the best. I love you.