We have finally arrived at our last destination… New Zealand. Jeannine’s college friend, Franz, picked us up at the airport in Auckland and we spent two days meeting his family and seeing Auckland. Franz told us that since he moved to Auckland in 1997, its population has exploded and the infrastructure is not set up to handle it. The roads are overcrowded and housing prices have shot up. Besides European and Asian immigrants, Auckland has attracted a large population from the nearby Pacific Islands.
View of Auckland's skyline from Mt. Victoria
I’m sure many of you have heard about the Maori people of New Zealand. The Maori are NZ’s indigenous people who were featured in the film The Whale Rider. They have been recognized in a larger way than indigenous in other countries due to the Treaty of Waitangi which was signed between the Maoris and the British Government. Many battles and land grabs later the Maori aired their grievances at the Waitangi Tribunal and have gained much of their land and rights back. Their culture and art pops up everywhere you go and their language is taught to all school children. Franz’s six year old son was learning counting, colors, and the days of the week in Maori.
Franz took us on a drive through the downtown and over to Devonport, a North Shore suburb with a historical flavor. We walked passed Victorian architecture and ancient trees to get fish and chips at a local pub. He then drove us up Mt. Victoria (an old volcanic cone) which gave us a grand view of Auckland and the harbor.
Scene from Devonport
It’s springtime in New Zealand and there are wonderful flowering trees and plants everywhere. This, of course, means that it’s time for the allergies to ignite. My cold has evolved into a steady nasal drip and Jeannine finally gave up and stuck a Kleenex in her nose to catch the constant flow.
One of the flowering trees causing our allergies. It's called the bottle brush tree by the locals.
We got to see a Rose Festival at Devonport. Not only were there tons of roses but they had music and plenty of food too.
Monday morning we drove down to Waitamo Caves for a tour. Caves among the Maori were considered places of magic, wonder, and at some point they were also burial grounds and their status is generally sacred. The tour included the Glowworm Cave and Aranui Cave. No photography is allowed at the Glowworm Cave to protect the worms. The beginning of the tour was mostly a discussion and identification of limestone caves followed by the standard description of cave jargon… stalactites, stalagmites, columns, etc. Railings and platforms make this an easy cave to walk through. The thing that made it special were the glowing worms, which aren’t really worms but the larva of the fungus gnat that emit a glow to attract their food. OK, it sounds creepy, but they are pretty cool. We caught glimpses of the worms in the dark and at one point we were very close to the worms and could see the long threads that extend from their bodies to catch flying insects to eat. We descended to a dock in near total darkness and got into a boat. It felt like the scene in the Harry Potter movie where Dumbledore and Harry sailed across a dark lake to find Voldemort’s horcrux . We were asked not to talk so all I could hear was water dripping in the darkness. As the boat moved silently forward we looked up and saw thousands of blue/green dots in the ceiling. It was like seeing a clear starry night; they even looked like they twinkled because of the movement of the threads. The boat ride only took five minutes but it was magical.
We took a lunch break at a cool looking café called Huhu near the caves. We hadn’t read anything about it, but it’s modern industrial look appealed to us. As it turned out the Lonely Planet Guide for New Zealand listed it as the best place to eat in the area. The café sits on the second floor and has a balcony with a spectacular view of the hills which resembled the hills used for the hobbit shire in Lord of the Rings. It was easy to imagine a little hobbit house in the hills. Often when going to remote tourist locations the food is not up to par with the wonder of the local attraction, but Huhu was the exception! If you find yourself in this area, this is definitely the place to eat.
Can't you imagine a hobbit coming out of these hills?
After lunch we headed out to Aranui cave. Aranui was a walking cave with the added bonus of a 30 minute bush walk after the tour. We were not disappointed. Aranui was opened in 1910 for the public and as usual in that time people were careless, taking souvenirs by breaking off pieces of the formations and carving names inside the walls. Some of the damaged formations continue to grow because the perpetrators only touched the piece they removed and not the formation above the break. Oils found on the hands rub off on the formation and essentially kill it since the limestone deposit can’t adhere to the oils. In recent years they’ve worked hard at educating people and maintaining the cave with better walkways. The cathedral hall, the largest room in the cave was very beautiful and unlike the Glowworm Cave, we could photograph to our heart’s content in this cave. The tour lasted about an hour and when we exited we headed out to the bushwalk which took us to a couple of natural cave viewing platforms for some spectacular views of the river below the cave.
Scenes from Aranui Cave
We left the Waitamo area on our way to Taupo. Driving on the left hand side of the road, so far, has been uneventful and not as bad as I thought it might be. The GPS reminds me to drive on the left hand side of the road when I turn it on and Jeannine reminds me to stay to the left when turning. So far those two warning mechanisms have worked well and I’ve had no mishaps. I think downloading the GPS maps for Australia and New Zealand were a good investment. It certainly saves a lot of time not having to look up the maps to get to where I’m going. I shaved at least an hour off our trip to the caves; Franz said it would take me at least 3 to 3 ½ hours since I was new to the area and I made it there in 2 hours 15 minutes without speeding. Got to love modern technology!