First impressions of New Zealand

In the weeks leading up to our move, and during most of the sleepless 15+ hour flight, I kept making J. R. Tolkien jokes, mostly at Fiona’s expense.

“Will the elves accept me there, even though I’m a human?”

“Will there be beds at your mom’s house, or do we sleep in a hole in the earth?”

“Do they have to clear dragons from the airstrip before we can land?”

Get the idea?  Good, because no matter how many lines I came up with, Fiona just didn’t find them funny.  When our van limo arrived at AKL airport, I conked out for the first time since we’d left Malaysia and dreamt of life in the Shire.

I woke up in a city called Hamilton.  Rubbing sleep from my eyes, we unloaded our bags and a man came from around the corner to greet us.  He stood a full head shorter than me, his squinted eyes studying me curiously behind thick spectacles.  His eyebrows ran from one ear to the next, but his most prominent feature was a bowler hat atop his grey head.  I felt sure that if he were to remove his shoes, I’d see massive, hairy feet.

“Sam, this is my Uncle Neville.”

“Fiona!  I knew it!  You’re related to one!”

Rather than await her explanation, he shot me another glance of unimpressed appraisal and ushered us into his office.  Neville is the proud proprietor of an auto yard, and he had graciously offered to loan us a beater until we were more settled down.  Ideally, it would be along the lines of a late model Subaru Legacy or maybe one of those Honda CRV’s.  That’s when he broke the news.

“Yer mum told me youse was getting here next week!  I don’t exactly haves a car for yas right now.  But give me just… a few hours and we’ll see what we can do.”

Good to his word, Neville rolled up on schedule with a 1997 Hyundai Lantra wagon.  Okay, not exactly what we had pictured, but it looked plenty drivable.  Neville had more news.

“The doors don’t open correctly from the inside, they don’t lock quite right from the outside.  The front windows, don’t roll them down.  Please.  The air-con was working yesterday, I’m not so sure about now.  One o’ the seat belts releases from time to time, but just keep an eye on the buckle.  I had to remove one o’ the parts… eh, don’t worry about it.  You prolly won’t need it.  Other than that, the warrant’s good, so she’s road worthy and all yours as long as you need her.”

Action Man: Go!Did he say something about “seat belts?”

A few hours later, two tires blew out.

I will say that despite a troubling start, the old wagon did the job.  We put thousands of kilometers on the odometer and aside from topping up the fluids and replacing two tires, we never encountered a single problem we weren’t already expecting.  But before I get into the details of our two months of roadtripping around New Zealand, let me tell you a little bit about my new home country.

In many ways, New Zealand stopped at the 1990’s, looked around, and figured, “Why bother with the 21st century?  We have pretty much everything we need already.”  Thus, cars over 15 years old, non-ironic knit sweaters, and early generation iPhones are all common sights.  Consumer culture is delightfully lacking here.  Sure, you’ll still hear kids moan about how badly they want a Sega Genesis, but who didn’t want one of those in 1989?

In the absence of a retail therapy approach to the national economy, Kiwis manage their money somewhat more sensibly, even though debit cards are still a very new concept.  They can invest in a government subsidized personal retirement scheme, buy a home for $250K or less, and purchase organic, free range sundries at the locally owned markets.  This is the norm.  No, New Zealand will never be a leading economy in the Western world (unless we see a substantial global demand for wool and mutton) and yes, just like anywhere else, there are people who choose to do stupid things with their money.

On that note, the government in Wellington is considered one of the most honest and transparent in the world.  The ministers go to work not in limos or private cars but — get this — buses!

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Other plans are in the works…

Imagine for a moment how many tax dollars your national government would save by simply commuting en masse.  The only political scandals that make the news (people still read newspapers here) are about ministers scamming a free dinner for their girlfriend, or people’s general unease about foreigners buying up too much farm land.  Nothing about former bank chairmen becoming national treasurers.  Nothing about multi-million dollar campaigns.  Just town hall politics on a national scale.

I should say something about the food.  After a great deal of research, I’ve determined the national food here to be fish and chips.  Meat pies come in a close second.  Every town has two or three chip shops, and locals will argue heatedly about who batters the best fish, whose chips are the crispiest, and which pies have the highest kidney-to-gravy ratio.  Chinese chip shop owners tend to have the best in all categories, but their Chinese food is beyond lousy.  Fine dining in most towns (because there are very, very few cities here) means going to the one place in town that doesn’t wrap up takeaways in newspaper.  That usually involves the following menu options:  fish of the day, lamb cutlets, lamb shank, lamb kabobs, hamburger, lamb burger, sirloin steak, and a beast called the Scotch filet, which ranks in my personal Top 3 finest cuts of meat I’ve ever devoured.  All come with sides of starch and gravy.  Vegetarians need not apply.

Chip shops and pub grub aside, options are limited.  Indian, Italian, and Thai places pop up here and there.  A regional chain called Burger Fuel is awesome at, you guessed it, burgers.  They make their own condiments.  Still, the foodie part of me has yet to be wowed.  Maybe New Zealand isn’t ready for 21st century cuisine.  Maybe they’re more inclined to do the financially sensible thing and cook at home.  And why not?  It’s all home grown and farm raised in their back yard.

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..or grown in specially-designed plastic crates.

As for the hooch.  The wine, if you don’t know already, is exceptional.  Hawkes Bay for Syrah and Cab-Merlot, Northland for Rosé, Martinborough for general reds.  South Island’s Otago has the best Pinot Noir I’ve ever tasted, and most oenophiles are familiar with the Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough.

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Tireless research

The beer is… okay.  It beats living with the watered-down piss of Asia, and bottle shops offer a better selection than most of those in the U.S. (not including beer capitals like Washington and Oregon).  The industry standard tends to range from a smooth lager like Export Gold (like Heineken, but with a spine) to a slightly bitter IPA such as Tui (though sorely lacking in the lip-smacking hoppiness of Pacific Northwest ales).  Microbreweries do exist here, but very few of them do bottle sales, and those bottles tend to be quite pricy.  My greatest complaint is not so much the cost, but the low alcohol content.  Five percent is considered high here.

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Beers I have loved

As for the scenery, it’s all here.  Anyone who saw Lord of the Rings, Wolverine, or Black Sheep has a pretty good idea of the highlights.  In between Mt. Doom and Hobbiton are sheep farms.  And more sheep farms.  And some cows.

And more sheep.

If that seems monotonous, it is.  However, miles (err, kilometers) of two lane road through rolling green hills is infinitely preferable to cement turnpikes and endless billboards that disallow drivers from relaxing or enjoying an ad-free notion for even one damned minute.

Specific sites so far?  Fiona and I have covered nearly the whole of the North Island.  Starting way down south in the capital, visitors can enjoy “Windy Wellington,” which experiences hurricane force gales on a near-daily basis.

It is also home to Te Papa National Museum, a free attraction that showcases pretty much everything visitors ever wondered about New Zealand but never bothered to ask.  As a museum buff, Fiona had to drag me out after I burned several hours observing the fine lines of Maori woodwork, the varied local flora of the botanical garden, and the largest giant squid ever caught in history!

Stepping out from Te Papa, the waterfront is a great option on the rare fair weather day.

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Seen here, a fair weather day

Plenty of opportunities for people watching, with a handful of parks and mini-museums, as well as the delicious Macs Brewery.  If you are introverted or sociopathic, the waterfront also offers free wifi, an astonishingly rare commodity in New Zealand.

Cuba Street is walking distance from the waterfront.  Similar to San Francisco’s Castro District, Cuba is where visitors will find the… counterculture (I hesitate to use this term because it makes people immediately go there to open very silly niche gift shops and so-called brasseries, which are really just café-bars with an extra helping of pretension).  Head shops, fine dining, street performers, bars with loud disco music and rainbow flags.

DSC04221 And, y’know, grown men jumping backflips off pogo sticks

Cuba is home to a smattering of music halls as well.  Amongst throngs of fans clad in medium-sized t-shirts and sporting square-framed spectacles, Explosions in the Sky rocked my face off when I saw their show there some weeks back.

Explosions in the freaking Sky, Wellington

I’m the one with no face.  It was rocked off, you see.

At first glance, Wellington seemed like the most likely candidate for our New Zealand resettlement.  All the charms of America’s Pacific Northwest, right?  Bike lanes, good eats, expansive bar scene, live music every night, rain most every day.

Unfortunately, Wellington also possesses the less desirable traits of the Pacific Northwest’s rotten step-brother, San Francisco.  I’m speaking of the utter lack of parking options.  I’m referring to the dirty hippies who scream police brutality when unarmed cops look at them funny (I’m no fan of police brutality in places like China, Syria, and America, where it is a very real thing, but the cops here are friendly and helpful in every conceivable way, tolerant even to the point of forgiving Fiona’s lead-footed driving habits).  Have I already mentioned the incessantly shrieking wind?  Yes?  It bears repeating.

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To it’s credit, suicide rates are comparatively lower.

Even with all this taken into consideration, Wellington still seemed okay.  That was until we got down to the business of finding a place to live.  The city itself is prohibitively expensive unless one is willing to share a bathroom (or perhaps a bed) with one’s neighbors.  The suburbs were a better option, but dreadfully suburban.  I could imagine our conversations on Saturday night:

“So darling, where shall we dine tonight?”

“Well, a new Asia Kitchen just opened at the food court in Johnsonville Mall…”

Who wants to live in a place called Johnsonville anyway?

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Shown here: us “dining”

The only acceptable option we found was Titahi Bay.  As the name implies, it’s on the beach.  Small town atmosphere, a fish and chips shop on most corners, and agreeable rents.  A quick 40 minute commute to central Wellington for those nights when we want more choices than snapper versus tirakihi.  Now we just had to find a realtor interested in taking money from us in exchange for a place to live.  That’ll be the easy part.

Except it was not.  For some asinine reason we have yet to figure, property managers in that part of New Zealand don’t really need people’s money.  We spoke with about a half-dozen agents, and most all of them muttered about maybe calling us in a week or so for a couple of viewings.  The rest didn’t bother doing anything at all.

At this point, Fiona’s dad, a longtime area resident who put us up for a few nights, suggested that we look elsewhere.  “What’s so great about this place that you want to live here so bad, anyway?”  The man had a point.

We spent a week and a half trying to convince people to take lots and lots of money from us in exchange for their services before finally giving the finger to Windy Wellington and blowing out of there.  No worries.  We still had plenty of time before the school year started (southern hemisphere calendar, remember) and plenty more places to explore.  Nothing wrong with living in a station wagon for a month, right?

Just an hour out of the city is a place called Waikanae Beach.  We stayed at the Barnacle for a couple nights and spent a day at Kapiti Island, a wildlife reserve full of kaka.  No, you dirty, dirty child!  Kaka are the world’s largest parrots.  They are quite sociable, especially if you have food for them to steal.  Visitors can climb to the island’s summit, and on a clear day the view stretches all the way to the South Island.

Turns out, they know how to unzip backpacks.

100% pure kaka

Even further up the road, Foxton Beach is a fun place to fly a kite.

If one is fleeing Wellington via highway 2, a stop at the Tui Brewery in Mangatainoka is imperative.

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Also comes in hobbit size

Take a tour, try the beers you can’t get elsewhere, and admire the finer personality traits of the Blonde Army working the bar.

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There’s also this secret waterfall.

Continuing on the 2, travelers enter the Hawkes Bay region, passing through Hastings (good for off-track betting but little else, far as I can tell) and into Napier.  Napier is not just a small city with a cool name.  It also happens to be the art deco capital of the world.  For a frame of reference, think of Gotham City in the animated Batman TV show.  Think of flappers.  Think of the Great Gatsby.  Think of the cover of the last Ayn Rand novel you read.  Got it?  Ha-ha.  Caught you reading Ayn Rand.

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Your Source for Objectivist Journalism

To call this place the art deco capital is not just a tribute to the architecture.  The title also pertains to Napier-ites, or a least a notable percentage of them, who seeking fast times on a Saturday afternoon, dress in period costumes, wind up the old Victrola, and laze in the rocker seat of their motorcar, watching the tide ebb and flow.  And since I mentioned the architecture, I should explain further that after an earthquake in the 1930’s leveled the town, Napier was rebuilt all at once modern designs of the time.  So which came first, the fabulous flappers or the futurist facades?  No one knows for sure… the rest of New Zealand was too busy racing towards the ultramodern 1990’s.

Also, be sure to check out the aquarium.

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Fish!

Traveling the coast further on highway 2, Gisborne comes into sight not so much with a triumphant roar but with the mellow beats of a drum circle.  In further committing the common foreigner crime of comparing places to my home country, “Gizzy” is very much like Eureka, California or Boone, North Carolina.  Small, sleepy, and full of hippies.   Maybe it’s the beach that brings them there.  Maybe it’s the vineyards, stretching from Hawkes Bay all the way to Gizzy’s aptly named Poverty Bay.  Maybe it’s the Rhythm and Vines music festival Gizzy holds every New Year’s Eve.  Or maybe it’s the clandestine fields of marijuana throughout the surrounding foothills.  Yeah, it’s probably the marijuana.

We had a fantastic time at the NYE festival.  It was a little bit more electronica action than I was expecting, but Grandmaster Flash and Architecture in Helsinki made up for the eurotrash jams.

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Grandmaster Flash!  EEEEEEEEEEEeeeeeeeee!!!

When the sun rose on 2012, Gizzy was the first town in the world to see it.  My only major gripe about Gizzy is that aside from the festival, there’s very, very little to do.

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Very little to do at all.

Especially if like us, you opt to camp in the rain.  Three days of endless rain.  This would become a theme for future camping trips.

Still lost...

That, and getting lost.

If you choose highway 1 as your Wellington escape route, be sure to stop in Bulls for a bunch of bull-themed kitsch, Taihape for their giant gumboot (galoshes or wellingtons to the rest of us), the Desert Road for… um, a road in the desert, and Waiouru for the Army Museum.

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Please, don’t do this.

A few words about the Army Museum.  It is without a doubt the finest military museum I’ve ever patronized.  Not only is it thorough in its depth and detail, but it’s also surprisingly honest.  Not completely without bias, mind you, but in many cases the museum is critical of New Zealand’s role in the history of warfare, and the nature of war in general.  I was also impressed at the portrayal of Maori.  In most of the United States museums I have visited, the indigenous peoples are typically portrayed as illiterate, uncultured savages, a hopeless cause until white Europeans arrived and saved the day.  In other countries’ museums, indigenous peoples are completely omitted from the historical record.  The placards throughout the Army Museum describe Maori fighters not as Maori, not as indigenous tribes, not as savages, but as men.  The voice of the writing suggests the sort of respect one human has for another human, as opposed to the voice of a victor speaking idly of the vanquished.  The military accomplishments of the Maori are praised highly and rightly so.  They were the pioneers of trench warfare, and won decisive victories in the First and Second World Wars.  Unfortunately, before I got to the conflicts in Malaysia and Vietnam, Fiona dragged me away, as she’d been sitting in the museum café for about three hours.

New Zealand’s National Park is too colossal to discuss in one sitting.  The best starting point would be the Tongariro Crossing, “New Zealand’s Most Popular Walk.”  Yes, you’ll be hiking alongside dozens or even hundreds of other people.  But the vastness of this crossing makes you feel like the first human on Mars.

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Life on Mars

Volcanic landscapes at their finest:  fragmented cones, multicolored pumice fields, treacherous plutonic passes, acidic sapphire lakes, and weather that never stays still for five minutes.

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Just a peek

Bring your boots.  This hike is not for sissies… or as my local friends like to remind me, “For Kiwis it’s easy as.”

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“Easy as” my left foot!

The locals tend to go more for the isolated Bear Gryllis-style excursions, the kind involving GPS transponders, ice axes, and mylar blankets.  It took two weeks for my body to recover from the seven-hour Tongariro Crossing, but I’m going back soon for the Mt. Doom summit.

Even if you’re not planning to hike hardcore, you can do some easier excursions around the Park.  There are about a half-dozen lodging options.  My favorite is the Park Lodge.  They have a beautiful house Pinot Noir from the South Island’s Otago region that compels the drinker to sit back and ponder for a moment the delicate balance between earth and fruit, as well as all the other things that make life wonderful.  There are also two outdoor spa pools.  Come for the pleasant company, stay for the brunch.

Some folks from Pittsburg we met in the middle of nowhere

Pictured: pleasant company

Continuing north will get you to the Waikato (sounds like “white ghetto”) Region.  Waitomo Caves is where buses drop off the tourists, and for good reason.  There aren’t many places where a novice spelunker can rappel a few hundred feet into the belly of a cave, float a tube down black water rapids, and meander through miles of passageways illuminated only by glow worms.  You only need to do Waitomo Caves once, but make sure you do it once!

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Plus you get to wear these.

Further into Waikato, you’ll pass through Otorohanga, home to the world’s largest metal kiwi bird sculpture, and land in Putaruru, a fairly unassuming town, save for one minor detail:  this is where Fi’s whanau is based.  Her mom (I mean, mum), brother, sister-in-law, two nieces, and one nephew all live in the same neighborhood, about ten minutes walking distance apart.  At the time of this writing, we had passed through “the Puts” so many times in our travels, it came to be our sort of de facto home base (in absence of an actual home to call our own).  Their homes are full of life, with youngin’s running all over the place, video games exploding on the TV’s, and something always on the stove (or in some cases, Fis’ brother carrying in a bundle of newspaper-wrapped fried goodness).

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Joys of parenthood

Mum maintains a steady constitution and sly smile, taking one more sip as she watches everyone else at the table succumb to the influence of bourbon and cola.  She is a legendary woman and a delightful bullshitting partner.  Fiona and I have always been made to feel welcome in Putaruru, and I’m eternally thankful to the whanau for that.

All the grown-ups came along for Raggamuffin, a reggae fest in nearby Rotorua.  Arrested Development and UB40 were on the bill, but it was Billy Ocean who absolutely stole the show.

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Dirty rotten hippies

When there’s no festival going on, Rotorua is best known as the town on the North Island where you can do pretty much any crazy crap you’ve ever dreamt up.  Want to bungee jump?  Skydive?  Parasail?  Luge?  Zip line?  How about rolling down a grassy hill in a giant plastic bubble?  You can do all that in one day.  Any time you have left over may be spent touring the multitude of waterfalls, dancing around the explosive thermal parks, or just letting your distraught muscles return to normal while basking in a volcanic mud bath.  We smelled of sulfur for a day or so after, but I foresee returning to “Roto-Vegas” for many more adventures in the future.

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Thermal parks: where Mother Nature farts

When Fiona told me we were finally going to visit Hobbiton, I was so excited!  I asked where it was.  I heard her say, “It doesn’t matter.”  I thought she was presenting me with some sort of Hobbit riddle.  As it turns out, she had actually said, “Matamata.”  But to the droves of Tolkien fans who arrive there every day, year-round, dressed in wizard robes and brandishing battle axes, it’s better known as “The Shire.”

As the story goes, director and New Zealand native Peter Jackson was flown all around New Zealand by helicopter in order to spot ideal sites for Lord of the Rings.  Somewhere just outside of Matamata he spied a particular sheep farm (how he could tell one from the other, bleats me!) that was absent of power lines, paved roads, or any other indicators of the last few millennia.  He had a word with the land owner, wrote a few large checks, and started digging Hobbit holes.  New Zealand’s government, wisely predicting that the production of the most epic film trilogy since Star Wars equaled a great deal of potential wealth in tourist dollars and tax revenue, kindly offered Peter Jackson the Army Corps of Engineers.  They set to work building roads for the site, which gained a lot of publicity amongst the farmer’s neighbors.  Bound by a Hollywood contract to keep quiet, he muttered something about “damned possums” and refused to elaborate.  It was only upon the film’s worldwide release that a few locals spotted telltale landmarks on the big screen and figured out his ruse.

You can read about this and other fun facts on my Hobbiton page.

Waving a fond farewell to Waikato, we proceeded to Auckland, known derisively as the Los Angeles of New Zealand.  I can’t say much about the place.  They have a museum, but it looked dull on the outside so we didn’t go in.  They probably have some cool stuff in the city, but you have to fight traffic for an hour, getting lost all the way in order to find it.  I’m sure one day I’ll give the place a fair shot, but for now, I’ll happily just speed along northwards.

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Probably just full of dusty old stuff.

Two old friends of ours from Beijing live in Orewa, just a half-hour or so from the metro area.  A quiet contrast to Auckland, Orewa is one long stretch of sand with a boulevard that reminds me a bit of “Boardwalk Empire.”  Old Atlantic City, without the murders, opiates, and prostitution.

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Not to say it’s completely devoid of dodgy characters.

We spent a few nights here, passing north and south, and Karen and Mark were always gracious hosts, be their hosting styles ever so opposite in nature.

Karen’s hosting style is showing as many sights as possible and describingthemallinonebreath, gesturing this way and that with her arms while passengers nervously monitor her control of the steering wheel.

We must have seen a dozen places, and in three hours I somehow managed to accumulate a bottle of mead, a pint of honey, a handful of postcards, a bellyful of microbrew, and a scalp full of sand and sea water.

I especially liked the old German settlement we visited with the 200 year-old gasthaus.

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ADD nightmare

Mark is far more subdued.  Saying very little during the drive, he took us out to a gannet reserve on the coast.  Protected by sheer crags rising high above the crashing waves of the South Pacific, the gannet nesting grounds resemble the floor of the New York Stock Exchange; not one square inch is unoccupied.  The birds majestically plunge from the rock into the sea below searching for family supper.  Sometimes as they return to the nest, the pervasive winds blow them off course, landing them onto a neighboring nest.  A battle of dominance ensues, one bird dancing in a way that says, “Get off my @$£% nest!”  and the bird replying with a head bob that says, “My bad.”

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Prime real estate

We were there for a good hour or more, just watching.  Fiona and I had been on the road for several weeks by this point, so we deeply appreciated this moment of pause.  Eventually, with mutual nods of concurrence, like so many gannets, we wordlessly agreed we had enjoyed our time and returned to the car.  We polished off a round of burgers at a nearby beach and came home to find Karen had painted the entire basement while we were gone.

Karen and Mark, we love you both.

Northland, as the name suggests, is everywhere on the northernmost tip of the North Island.  Northland enjoys a nearly subtropical climate compared to everything south.  This commands a strong tourist draw, but one would never guess it from visiting the place.  There are tour buses running hordes to well-known sights such as 90 Mile Beach (I know, they use metrics here, so I don’t know how it got that name), which you can drive along until the tide swallows up your car, but aside from those few locales, even in high season, Northland is a pretty lonely place.  I think this is due to the numerous choices one has for lodging and adventuring.  This keeps the tourist crowds spread well apart.  I’m tempted to make another gannet comparison, but I’ll leave that alone for now.

Uretiti Beach (say it out loud, it’s fun!) offers cheap yet epic camping just off the sand.  Unforgettable sunsets guaranteed.  We would have stayed more than one night, but as mentioned before, rain loves our tent.  The rain followed us all the way to Kerikeri where we visited one of Fiona’s cousins, and then to Paihia, where we began to feel the car crushing us slowly.

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We. Are. On. Vacation.

It was clear by this time that we’d see little to none of the famed subtropical climate.  Due to the weather, all the hostels were booked so we were forced to spoil ourselves on an overpriced but nonetheless classy hotel room.  Soft towels and cable TV: ahhhhh.

From there we hopped the ferry to Russell, home of New Zealand’s original capital.  These days, nothing remains of the old colonial capital building, except a stretch of grass surrounded by million dollar vacation homes.  A path leads down to a cool rocky beach full of tide pools and odd marine life.  This and a tasty brunch made the ferry ride worthwhile, but for most people I’d recommend passing on Russell.

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Balls of the sea.

A Northland highlight for Fiona was Waitangi, where the nationally renowned, revered, and oft contested Treaty of Waitangi was signed.  This was the document that in English said “all you Maori, whether your chief signs this thing or not, shall be loyal to the Crown and acknowledge that we know what’s best for you.”  In Maori, it apparently says something very different.  In this way, it’s not much different from treaties signed between colonizers and the colonized the world over.  What’s unique about this paper however, is in the last 50 years or so, the national government has actually taken a step back to say sorry, that may have been a tad misleading.  They have put considerable time, energy, and money into reconciling the wrongs committed by colonialism.  Of course, save for evacuating the island nation of most white people, nothing will ever make the situation “right,” but I can respect the government for trying to reach a compromise, and I appreciate the Maori Party for acknowledging that the arrival of Europeans did bring new ideas and technology to their people, without which they would have significantly more difficult lives in this modern age of 1992.  Colonialism never looks pretty, and sets the stage for generational animosity.  Considering this, the Europeans and Maori did a not-completely-terrible job of the whole clash of cultures thing.

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Wait, the treaty said what?!

Many rainy road hours later we landed in Pukenui (I’m tempted to say puke-noo-ee, but poo-ke is two syllables), the last town in Northland with accommodations.  Our lodging was an old house built around the turn of the century.  The beds were fitted with giant warm quilts and the only other guests were some shady but quiet Swedes.  Across the street was a small pub that served a wholesome Sunday roast with sweet mushy carrots and gravy-rich mashed potatoes.  It was here that for the first time in more than a week, the rain gave way to sunshine.  We were ready for Cape Reinga.

For those who have read my verbose, raving posts for a long time, you know already of some of my favorite magical places on Earth.  Eagle Creek, Oregon.  Gili Air, Indonesia.  Tiger Leaping Gorge, China.  Cape Reinga is the newest addition to the list.  From the cliffs, as far as your eyes allow, you can see the Pacific Ocean meeting the Tasman Sea.  This produces a criss-cross pattern of converging tides in some parts, and a violent clash of opposing waves in others.  Where the water hits land, breakers cascade over the rocks, three men high.  It is a scene most beautiful and chaotic.  If you visit, we will go there.

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Photos cannot do it justice.

I could say the same for all of Northland.  Of all the North Island places I’ve visited so far, this region ranks the most scenic, and I feel there’s much more left to explore.

But wait.  There was still one tiny problem.  We still had no place to live!

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So many choices…

Wellington obviously was not on the table any longer.  The south beach towns were pretty but also pretty dull.  Dullness eliminated a number of other towns whose prize attribute was the world’s largest something or other.  The Waikato seemed a good option, especially the respectably-sized city of Hamilton at its heart.  However, Hamilton offers very little save for Uncle Neville’s car yard and it’s location in the middle of Waikato.  Karen and Mark, bless them, had graciously offered to house us until we found a place in the greater Auckland area, but the A-C-K and all points north seemed too isolated from the rest of the North Island to suit our needs.  Plus we’d have to befriend Aucklanders, and that’s no easy task.

One night, we were visiting some of Fiona’s kin in Hawkes Bay and trying to resolve the residency question over several rounds of bourbon.  We were actually considering that particular region, but Fiona’s uncle had veiled apprehensions, implying that be it ever so lovely, Hawkes Bay might be a little too sleepy for our tastes.  Her aunt chimed in, “Why not Lake Taupo?  You lived there for awhile some years back.  Why not again?”  Fiona and I looked at each other.  Funny, we never had seriously considered it.  We’d visited the place a couple times in passing — a quick dip in the lake before dashing off to another excursion.  Could be that our mutually restless personalities could not grasp the concept of living in a place where one of us had lived once already?  Yeah, probably.

We went to Taupo the next day, stopping the car right at the lake’s edge.  We waded in and looked around us.  Happy families splashing down the beach.  Healthy looking citizens walking their dogs.  Sidewalk diners enjoying a light lunch.  Is that a Burger Fuel over yonder?  Yes it is.  Three hours north, the lights and music of Auckland.  Two hours east, the wines and architecture of Hawkes Bay.  Within about an hour, the whanau in the Puts and the largely unexplored National Park.  And beneath our feet?  Hot volcanic sands on the bed of a cold water caldera lake.  This could work.  This could actually work.

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Annnnd this is our back yard.

We called a few realtors.  That day, we had agents chomping at the bit to show us around town.  The next day, we had a key.  Take that, Wellington.

As I finish writing this, the sun sets over the lake.  Today was clear, so I can see all the way out to Mt. Taranaki on the far east coast of the North Island.  The colors in the sky are a different combination than those reflected in the lake, the two palettes separated by the Hauhungaroa Range.  There are still some unopened boxes, and our crate from Malaysia is somewhere out in the Pacific Ocean or perhaps the South China Sea, who knows.  Still, we’re not living in a car anymore.  In fact, we’re saying goodbye to the old wagon.  Uncle Neville sold us a newer model wagon (“One of the speakers has a hole in it and the upholstery is coming loose and the air-con only blows hot air and it won’t turn off, but she’s a great car anyway…”) but I love this guy, no matter what his feet may or may not look like.

While our lives are far from being crisis free, we are enjoying our first taste of normalcy in over two months.

So what’s been learned?

  • If you keep trying to make something work and it doesn’t work and you just get frustrated and curse and throw things, it’s probably not for you.  Move on.
  • Sometimes figuring out the right way to do it comes only after exploring several wrong ways.
  • Home is where you make it, but better if it’s not a car.
  • Most difficult decisions can be sorted out with family and bourbon.
  • Difficult situations may also arise in those circumstances.
  • You never know when friends from your past will pop up somewhere in the world to save your ass.
  • Life is sweet.

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Sweet as.

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