My original idea for my 2nd big 2018 trip was to venture to Botswana and Victoria Falls. But, for reasons too complicated to explain, those plans quickly proved to be too complicated to organize. I already had an Africa trip planned for spring, anyway, so it's just as well. While brainstorming other possible destinations, my mind stumbled upon New Zealand and the idea stuck. The more I thought about it, the more perfect it seemed to visit a country that was so rich with beautiful and interesting regions. Plus, it would be an opportunity to visit a region of the world I hadn't seen in 7 years.
In October 2017, I started seriously working on crafting an itinerary with the idea of leaving on the day after Thanksgiving, which is when I'd departed for Australia in 2011. After much research, I worked out what seemed like a solid and exciting plan… only to discover that I'd miscalculated the dates and I'd either have to leave on Thanksgiving itself or else I'd have to cut a day somewhere. I talked it out with my family and I was so grateful that they were amenable to holding our 2018 Thanksgiving gathering on Wednesday night instead of Thursday just this one time. As the holiday approached, I nonetheless had some regrets that we wouldn't be together on the traditional day for family gatherings. I'd glad we could agree on alternate plans this year but I don't want to make a habit of being out of town on future Thanksgivings.
While in the midst of planning, I realized that I would be paying off my student loans several months before my trip. I can't emphasize enough how absolutely huge a deal this was! I never thought I'd actually pay off those damn things. I began to think of my New Zealand trip as a celebration of a milestone. As such, I decided to splurge even more than usual. I was glad I'd waited to go to New Zealand until I could afford a bit of indulging because I found so many opportunities to engage in "once in a lifetime" experiences. I also decided to challenge myself to a few experiences outside my comfort zone that I'd never imagined myself doing; if I could succeed at paying off my loans, surely I could succeed at other activities that had seemed impossible for me. As the trip drew closer, I wondered how those challenges would go- they'd either be a series of epic successes or a colossal failure!
In the months leading up to my trip, I joined a gym and worked up to attending an average of 3 times a week. Most people go to gyms to lose weight; my main goal was to increase my fitness and stamina so I could get the most enjoyment out of my travels. (Secondarily, I also wanted to improve my overall health.) Though I still was not a paragon of athleticism by any means, my increased level of fitness gave me the confidence for signing up for some more active adventures.
As my trip approached, I'd finally been starting to feel more at peace with myself after a summer filled with depression and anxiety. I was excited both to see some of the legendary beautiful landscapes the country offers as well as to engage in the variety of activities I had planned. I was glad I was traveling solo so that I could be totally in control of where I went and what I did; it had been almost a year since I'd done a trip like that. Tours are great, especially for regions where I might not feel safe as a solo woman, but there is nothing like crafting a trip myself and having complete freedom and control over my days. Since I'm not keen to drive (even at home), there were some scheduling compromises that I needed to make but I still felt empowered to be making the decisions about my plans for each day. I was a bit worried that the forecast showed rain every single day, but I packed my Gore-Tex waterproof jacket and hoped to make the best of whatever nature had planned.
My day started by turning on the TV to see Broadway's Head Over Heels cast performing "We Got the Beat" on the Thanksgiving day parade which seemed as good an omen as any. I actually woke up a bit before my alarm which was amazing considering the previous night I'd gone out to the movies to see the 9pm of Wreck it Ralph 2 and then been up late showering and putting the final touches on my packing.
My niece, Julia, came over a bit after 9 and we left at 9:30. With no traffic, I arrived at the airport with plenty of time to calmly deal with the United agent straightening out my reservation. (It was somehow out of sync due to the flight numbers having changed-- despite the fact that I'd been required to phone Air New Zealand whenever something changed on the United side of the reservation...) After I started to walk away from the desk, she ran after me to give me a printout of my updated itinerary (which, ummm, was identical to what I'd already printed out...)
Thanksgiving weekend may be huge for travel but it would seem that Turkey Day itself is rather quiet. Cheek in and security were both a breeze.
As I was waiting at the gate, United staff asked passengers with boarding passes saying "see gate agent" or without seats to come to the desk. Of course, I had selected a seat long ago and had continued to check periodically that it was still assigned. So I was surpised when I suddenly heard a badly mispronounced version of my last name over the P.A. system. I went to the front desk and hardly had a chance to express my confusion when the agent told me that I was being upgraded to 1st class for my flight to Houston. Wow! I was even ok with being given an aisle seat instead of my usual window. I have zero status with United and wonder if perhaps I'd received some good karma from wishing a Happy Thanksgiving to the agent who had helped me at checkin.
I'd placed a One Up bid for my flight to Auckland, with the hopes that I might be able to enjoy the long flight in a row of 3 seats that converted into what they called a SkyCouch. A few days earlier, I'd received an email that my bid was still under review and I hoped the upgrade would be a good omen for that bid. As soon as I boarded the plane to Houston, I received an email with the results of my bid. For one brief, beautiful moment I read the word "successful" instead of "unsuccessful." Sigh. I'd have to sit in a normal seat after all. I'd known it was a longshot and probably not the most wise use of my money- but it would have been oh, so amazing to have 3 seats to myself on a long haul flight.
Even though it was just for a relatively short flight, I enjoyed being fancy in first class for all it was worth. I wasn't really hungry but I still ordered a roast beef wrap because they have meal service in first class and I was going to take advantage of it. Not only did they offer food, but the flight attendant wrote down our orders instead of just swinging by with a cart. The meal was worth it if only for the scrumptious triple chocolate cookie. It was also lovely to be offered a hot, nice smelling towel. I missed having a window, but not nearly enough to have any regrets about my upgrade.
After landing, I explored Houston airport a bit. There didn't seem to be obvious signs to walk from terminal B to D/E so I took the monorail which was cool because monorails are cool. Knowing that I had 2 generously times layovers in Houston, I'd signed up for a United credit card because it comes with 2 coupons a year to access United Club lounges. So after walking around terminal E, I settled into the lounge for awhile. I felt swanky presenting my coupon and then taking the escalator upstairs. I grabbed a seat by the windows to the sunny outside which also happened to be near the food. Of most interest to me were the yummy cream of tomato soup (which was so good that I got seconds later) and the cookies/brownies. I noticed a cute hot chocolate bar which would have been more tempting in cooler weather.
It was very relaxing to linger in the lounge, away from the hectic gates. I was impressed at how often the staff replenished the food and cleared away plates. I'd only ever been in an airline lounge once before- when I'd flown Cathay Pacific business class (using points) in Taipei in 2010. I enjoyed my experience, but not enough that I'd want to pay money for the privilege.
Eventually, I headed down to the gate to board my Air New Zealand flight. There weren't enough seats in the area so I just camped out on the floor- quite the difference from the relative luxury of the lounge, but I was fine with it. I was excited to finally board- it's always amazing to me to walk through the jet bridge onto an airplane, knowing that when I leave the vehicle I'd be in an entirely different part of the world.
I may not have won the privilege to pay to have a row of 3 seats to myself, but at least there was an empty middle seat in my row. One of the neat things about the Air New Zealand seatback video system was that it would display pop-ups with useful information such as the meal choices or warnings that they'd be dimming the cabin lights. One time I saw an alert that a belt had been left in the bathroom. Speaking of the bathrooms, they had really neat black and white wallpaper with a design like a bookshelf. Alas I never took my phone with me so I wasn't able to capture a photo.
The seatback video system also had a Food and Drink option that I'd been eager to try as I'd read that you could use it to select a snack or beverage to be delivered to your seat. Disappointingly, this menu option always displayed an "Unavailable" message whenever I checked on both this flight as well as the flight home.
During the flight, I watched the movie "Mamma Mia 2" which was a lot of fun. I chose the pasta with beef sauce as my meal, and continued to watch as I ate. After the movie was done, they dimmed the cabin lights, I took an anti-anxiety pill (because it makes me drowsy), and donned my mask and ear plugs. At that point, there were 11-12 hours left in the flight. The next time I checked, there were 4 hours left. When I finally awoke and the cabin lights were back on, there were only 2 hours left. Yeah, I cope pretty well with super long flights.
Soon after I got up, breakfast was served and I selected the cheese omelet. I was dying of thirst and it seemed to take forever for the beverage cart to catch up. Once it finally arrived, I asked for 2 waters... and immediately downed one of them.
I put on the cast recording of "Come From Away" and thought of my recent, wonderful trip to Gander. It was comforting to think of my friends as well as the fabulous time I'd had. I hadn't planned much for my arrival day but figured I'd work in a quick nap eventually so I wouldn't fall over at the theatre. I savored the possibilities that lied ahead and the feeling of freedom to craft my adventures. I was ready to turn my dreams into reality.
As we landed, I looked outside the window, eager for my first sight of New Zealand. I wanted it to look amazing and welcoming. Instead, once we descended below the clouds, I just saw a miserable, dreary rainy day that could have been anywhere in the world.
Before you even go through customs at Auckland International Airport, you need to pass through a huge duty free store. According to my research, you could buy a SIM card for your phone here without having to pay tax. They were having a special on the 10 Gig card which was on sale for NZD 51 (US $35) instead of NZD 86. It was too good a deal to resist. Making the purchase was a quick, easy process- and I was glad that I'd have more than enough connectivity for the trip at a much cheaper rate than using my US provider's international coverage.
Customs was almost a joke. All I needed to do was scan my passport and I was officially in New Zealand! Actually, I almost got in a line that was meant for countries without a scannable passport because upon entering any foreign country, my reflex is to follow the sign for "All other countries."
By the time I arrived at the baggage carousel, my bag was waiting for me. I exited to the main hall, pausing to take a photo of a statue that had intrigued me- turns out it's from Lord of the Rings although I didn't realize it. I was relieved to have no problems using the ATM to withdraw the equivalent of US $136. Still a bit thirsty, I stopped at a kiosk to buy a Berry Powerade Zero. I also picked up a Kinder Egg because I could- these are great little chocolate eggs with toys inside; the ones in other countries are much better than the ones they have in the US.
To get to my hotel, I'd reserved a Super Shuttle, which is a service offering shared rides. It was really easy to find where to pick it up. The van was full but fortunately I was sitting in the front. There were a few stops before my hotel but I was in no hurry. I was really glad I'd booked a door-to-door service so I wouldn't need to walk in the rain from a bus stop.
Not surprisingly, since it was around 7am, my hotel room wasn't ready. My original plan had been to wander around the nearby Auckland waterfront. However, it was raining steadily so it wasn't ideal to be outdoors. Since it was still too early for any stores or attractions to be open, I asked the man at the front desk for suggestions and he said I could sit upstairs by the restaurant. I was drawn to a bright red sofa, where I made myself comfortable as I watched the rain drip down on the clear atrium ceiling.
The room was colorful and quirky and I would surely have appreciated it more if I hadn't felt so frustrated and depressed at having to spend my first moments in New Zealand there by myself instead of out exploring. To make matters worse, I was eventually (politely) evicted from my sofa because it was needed for a large party. The group who had usurped my sofa appeared to be some kind of photography tour and I yearned to be a part of them.
But instead, I continued to watch the rain and I wondered if my whole trip would be that wet. I'd held so many hopes for enjoying the beautiful scenery, and I worried that my dreams would all be for naught. While some of my outdoor plans would be miserable in this kind of weather, others could probably be canceled altogether. Everyone I knew who'd been to New Zealand had posted such fabulous photos of the landscape- how cruel would it be to spend so much money and travel so far not to have an opportunity to do likewise. I wished I was back home snuggling with my furricanes. I posted on social media and my friends were empathetic and encouraging. But I still felt quite disheartened.
At about 10am, after almost 3 hours alone with my thoughts of doom, I noticed that the rain was finally letting up. It seemed safe to venture out and at least check out some of the nearby stores. I was staying just off Queen Street, one of the main streets downtown and it turned out that many of its sidewalks were under cover. My first stop was the Sanrio store which was only a couple blocks away. I didn't buy anything, but it really cheered me up to see all the cute Hello Kitty merchandise.
To further improve my mood, I went to a nearby cat cafe. Felines are sure to fill my heart with joy, and these were no exception. Even though they didn't provide any of the purrs or snuggles that I most craved, I absolutely adored being around them. This was the first cat cafe I'd been to which provided complimentary laser pointers and I had a lot of fun using one to play with one of the calicos. I wish I'd been in town on a Monday evening because they offer cat yoga then- that would be so much fun!
As a bonus to my experience in the cat cafe, I ordered an Oreo Marshmallow cookie that was out-of-this-world delicious. Chocolate and cats are both things that are guaranteed to make any day better. It still might rain and ruin all of my fun plans- but now that I was able to actually do things, I just wanted to take each moment as it came. I left the cat cafe after around an hour feeling much better than when I'd entered.
I walked around the waterfront a bit and made a point to get my bearings for where I'd need to go to catch a ferry the next morning. The rain started to intensify again, so I popped back to my hotel at about noon to check if my room was ready yet. When they told me it was indeed ready, I asked why they hadn't emailed me a notification like they'd promised. They said that it had only been ready for about 15 minutes. I'm glad I checked instead of walking around killing time in the soggy weather.
I'd chosen this hotel as much for its colorful decor as for its excellent location. I felt immediately comfortable in the room and particularly enjoyed the elegance and whimsy of the black polka dotted bathroom. I'd splurged a bit for the first stop of my trip, and I was pleased with my choice.
After settling in and taking the obligatory hotel room photos, I took about a 2 hour nap which felt fabulous- and was yet another means by which my initial crankiness was soothed. When I woke up, I wasn't quite sure where I was… it took a few moments for me to remember that I was in New Zealand. You'd think that sensation would happen to me quite often in my travels but it's pretty rare, at least to the extent it lasted that afternoon. Usually I'm confident in my surroundings by the time I'm cognizant enough to realize that I'm awake.
Taking a shower helped me feel refreshed. After blow drying my hair a bit, I used Google maps to scope out a grocery store where I went to buy some basic supplies such as bottled water, Coke Zero, and some all-important local candy bars that you can't find around here. In addition to local Cadbury brands such as Pinky and Crunchie, I couldn't resist the Chunky Choc Fudge Sundae Kit Kat! My jaw dropped at the sight of extra large 100g Kinder eggs but I didn't buy any because there's no way they'd pack well.
After dropping my grocery haul off in the hotel room, I headed out to explore. Miraculously, the sun was shining which made the city seem so much more appealing. I walked up Queen Street, enjoying discovering details such as Christmas displays. I was particularly taken with a giant purple ornament which I'd caught sight of earlier; it was so me.
Realizing that I hadn't had a proper meal since about 4am local time, which had been over 12 hours earlier, I had to resist the temptation to wander so I could focus on getting some nourishment. I was in the mood for Italian food and, thanks to Google maps, I found a cute little restaurant which had red checkered tablecloths. It was really quiet there since it was quite early for dinner, and it was a delightful place to eat my first New Zealand meal. I ordered my standard go-to meal of Spaghetti Bolognese and couldn't resist adding a bowl of Pumpkin Soup. Both of my selections were very tasty. I also had a Diet Coke for a burst of caffeine.
Feeling much more energetic after my dinner, I wandered around a little and lingered a bit at the nearby Aotea Square. I marveled at the Waharoa Arch, a whimsical and colorful sculpture by a Maori artist. Nearby was a theatre where the lavish Disney musical, Aladdin, would soon be opening. And just a bit further off was the Q Theater where I picked up my ticket for that evening's performance of "Here Lies Love."
Next to the theatre was Daiso, a Japanese version of the dollar store which had provided Julia and me with much amusement during our 2015 trip to Japan. I had to go in and roam around for old time's sake. I noted with bittersweet regret that there were some items which would make for fun gag gifts… if only that was still a thing that we did.
As I still had an hour and a half before the performance, I decided to visit nearby Albert Park. I didn't want to exert myself too much lest I crash during the show, but I enjoyed a nice stroll. I got a huge kick out of seeing flowers blooming in the Southern Hemisphere spring… a welcome change from the winter storm a week prior to my trip that had rudely signaled the start of winter back home. There was even a floral clock, which had apparently been created in 1953 in honor of Queen Elizabeth II's first visit to New Zealand. It wasn't functioning when I was there and I'm not sure if the clock hands were removed permanently or if they were just under restoration. But it was still nice to see.
At several points during my walk, I caught sight of the Sky Tower in the distance and I'd invariably stop to take a photo. My attempts to take a selfie with it in the backdrop were not the most successful, but it was fun to try.
On my way back to the theatre, I passed by a Burger King that had a sign advertising molten lava cake. I never actually tried it but I was impressed that Kiwi Burger Kings seemed to be at least more ambitious than the ones back home; and certainly that particular branch would have been more pleasant than the Last Resort Burger King that a friend and I regretfully visited because it was the only place open in downtown Hartford, CT on a Sunday.
Before the show, I couldn't resist trying a cake pop at the concession stand. Again, a more sophisticated dessert option than what I'm used to seeing at home. Apparently my American accent made "cake pop" sound like "dessert shot" to the gentleman at the stand but we got it sorted out with a laugh. I obviously chose a purple cake pop which was quite yummy.
Whenever I travel, I try to see shows if at all possible. Often there are few, if any, options and so I'll see whatever is playing even if it's not very interesting to me (reference "Love Never Dies" from my Australia 2011 trip). But this time I was excited to have the opportunity to see "Here Lies Love", a disco musical about Imelda Marcos which had an off Broadway run that had sounded exciting. My only hesitation about purchasing a ticket was wondering whether it would be a wise idea to be out late on my first day abroad. Ultimately, I decided that I should be fine as long as I managed to take a bit of a mid-afternoon nap.
The show was really… not what I had expected or hoped for. They had taken out all of the fun, interactive touches that I'd heard about in the NY production. They'd also removed any concept of plot; instead, it was performed as a song cycle with the numbers divided among 5 different women. It was entertaining but ultimately rather forgettable.
I was glad that the show was only 90 minutes, including intermission, so I wouldn't be out terribly late. I'd originally thought that I'd take a cab back to my hotel but I looked around and thought that it seemed fine to walk the 0.5 miles down Queen Street to my hotel. It felt nice to be out in the spring night air on a Saturday night, and I never felt a bit unsafe.
After getting ready for bed, I went to sleep at around 10:30. I looked forward to my first real full night's slumber in quite some time. Despite my disappointment with the show, my day had definitely ended up far more brightly than its rainy start. I felt cautiously hopeful that my journey would continue its upward trend.
My alarm was set for 8am but I woke up for good sometime after 7. Since I'd gone to sleep before 11, I felt very well rested. I looked outside bracing for the worst- it was overcast, but at least it wasn't raining. I was hopeful that I'd be able to proceed with my planned outdoor activities.
One of the nicest and unique touches in my hotel room was that the bathroom floor was heated- not as in "yikes, I'm walking on coals!" but just warm enough that my feet were happy on a cool-ish morning. I imagine that the floors would seem even more welcoming in winter. It's the little things that impress me.
For breakfast, I went down to the restaurant where I'd spent too much time the previous morning since the meal was included with my room. If I'd wanted to splurge, there were a la carte options available. But I'm not a big breakfast eater so I was satisfied with the complimentary breads, yogurt, and fruit.
I enjoyed spending a lazy morning in my room writing up some notes about the previous day, since I'd been too tired to do so before going to bed. This was one of the few opportunities I'd have to spend a morning idling so I wanted to take advantage of it. I'd intentionally not made plans too early on my first morning in New Zealand so that I'd have some time to relax and recover from the long journey. It was raining lightly so I didn't feel bad staying inside.
I didn't have to be anywhere until my 11am ferry to Waiheke Island, which is approximately a 45 minute trip from Auckland. This island first came on my radar when I saw some gorgeous social media posts by a former Les Mis actor who was traveling to New Zealand. My research revealed that it's known for its beaches and wineries but what really got my attention was a ziplining tour. I'd never been interested in doing a zipline in the past but I improbably found it an intriguing option to add to a trip that was all about challenging myself. I remember distinctly fighting through a tough workout while repeating "zip line" silently to myself, knowing I could reward my hard work by booking the excursion later that night.
While it seemed like a great idea in theory, as the designated time approached, I was growing quite nervous. I couldn't quite decide whether it would be a bad thing if the rain prevented me from trying this challenge; I thought that it might be a relief not to have the opportunity to chicken out. But, ultimately, some crazy part of me actually wanted to do the thing- so I hoped the weather would hold out.
I left plenty of time to pick up my ferry tickets which was good because apparently the zipline company had given me a bad reference number for the ferry. I'm not exactly sure how the issue got resolved because the ferry staff kept making calls from behind the ticket window as I stood outside awkwardly wondering what was going on. I felt calm because I had plenty of time, but I was also a bit anxious. Eventually, someone came out to tell me that everything was sorted out, much to my relief, and I queued up for the ferry.
There ended up being quite a long queue but, in spite of my delay, I was toward the front of the line. But there was plenty of room on the craft for everyone. After the ship pulled away from the pier, I realized that I'd have a great opportunity to photograph the Auckland skyline so I headed out on the deck. Another woman was also out there and after she asked me to take her photo, I naturally asked her to reciprocate. I was surprised that we were the only 2 people on deck. It was a little cool and windy out- but it was also a wonderful photo opportunity!
As we arrived at Waiheke Island, I eagerly looked outside. While it wasn't sunny out, the skies didn't indicate an imminent threat and the water was a nice shade of turquoise. As I walked off the pier, I immediately spotted someone with a sign indicating they were from the zipline company. So this whole ziplining thing was really going to happen.
I got in the van and met a nice young couple from India. En route to the site, we stopped in town and picked up a family of 4 who had their suitcases with them. The website says that they have groups of up to 12 on a session, but it was only the 7 of us for my group.
Once we arrived, we went into a room where 7 sets of gear were laid out on the floor- helmets and harnesses. That was when shit got real; Ziplining was no longer a fantasy to get me through a tough workout- it was actually going to happen. I donned my gear and listened carefully to instructions… with some definite trepidation. I debated taking my DSLR with me but I'm glad I ended up leaving it in my locker and just taking my cell phone which easily fit in my pocket. That way, I could focus more on the activity without worrying about my expensive equipment.
The setting was beautiful and lush with a body of water visible it the distance; it surely must be even more spectacular on clear, sunny days. I followed the group to the first of 3 ziplines- I'd read in reviews that they got increasingly long and the first was a way to ease people into it. Being able to start with a shorter option was one reason the tour had appealed to me. But actually looking at the lines dangling ahead of me, it didn't look as easy as it had sounded. The exact thought going through my head was "What the HELL did I get myself into?!?" Sure, I tried to maintain a confident swagger- but inside I was definitely questioning my life choices. I also knew that I had a lot riding on this activity- if my anxieties were greater than I'd anticipated, it might cause a domino effect of potential disappointments in the other challenges that lied ahead.
After taking a couple group photos, we took turns riding the zip lines. There were 2 parallel lines so we always went in pairs, after the first of the 2 instructors got to the other side and prepared to receive us. The 2 children from the family always wanted to go first, and the rest of us had absolutely no problems with that but the parents wanted to teach them that they needed to take turns so it varied. On the other hand, I always went last so I could be paired with the second of the two instructors since I was solo.
One group went across, then another... and another... and suddenly it was my turn. It seemed absolutely unreal that I was going to do this thing. It was insane to look out into the vista with the knowledge that I was going to willingly fling myself onto a line that would launch me through the air to a platform that seemed endlessly far away. Part of me wanted to turn back- and even a few years earlier, I think I might have panicked so much that I wouldn't have been able to do it. But somehow I convinced myself to sit down and learn forward…. and wow, I was dangling from a wire, drifting across a gorgeous vista… with my hair flying back in the wind…. and a big smile on my face. It was amazing! OK, I did feel just a tad motion sick… and I never managed to feel comfortable letting go of my arms (mostly because the one time I tried, I got twisted around and didn't like zooming backwards). But I mostly surrendered to the scenery and had FUN. After enjoying the first ride, the next two were much less nerve wracking.
Afterwards, we had a nice little nature walk through some of the bush that we'd seen from overhead. The guides discussed the flora and fauna, and we were able to try an edible leaf that was similar to basil. I felt like I was lagging behind the group a bit on the first section, which was downhill. But I was proud that I was able to keep up much better on the uphill stretches. However, I was getting super thirsty… and I felt like my clothes were really sticky due to the humidity. As soon as we got to the end of the walk, I bought a bottle of water as well as 2 of the souvenir photos: one of the group being silly (there was also a serious photo that was less fun), and another of myself just before the first zipline. I wished they offered photos or videos of the actual ziplining experience.
I felt that the zipline tour was well worth doing. It was a fun little adrenaline rush, and it felt good to succeed at venturing a bit outside my comfort zone. Relieved that my first challenge was behind me, I looked forward to spending the rest of the day wandering and enjoying my time as I hadn't made any other concrete plans.
I didn't take the van all the way back to the ferry terminal; instead, I asked to be dropped off in the center of Oneroa so I could explore the island a bit and also get something to eat. It was about 2pm by the time I was done with my experience and I was quite hungry. After allowing myself to get distracted by the serene shores of Oneroa Beach, while looked quite appealing during that brief period of sun, I set upon walking along the main street checking menus. I wasn't looking for anything in particular- just something that felt right.
Eventually, I stumbled upon a cute little organic crepe place that was perfect; it even had a cute name, "Little frog", which reminded me of one of my friends. It had a friendly and slightly artsy vibe that made me feel immediately comfortable walking up to the counter to place my order. The ham, egg and cheese crepe that I was served looked different than what I expected but it was very tasty. I also enjoyed a berry smoothie with bananas that was wonderfully refreshing despite not being as sweet as I was used to.
Rain started to come down in buckets so I lingered for well over an hour and a half. I was quite glad that I'd wandered down to the beach during the brief moment in the day when it had actually been sunny. Once the rain settled down, I finally left and walked back to the ferry. I would have liked to have had time to explore the island more and perhaps tried some hiking trails but the weather felt too unpredictable. In fact, it started to rain lightly during my one mile walk to the terminal. The walk was easy and mostly downhill, but- except for a detour I made through a park- it wasn't that interesting once I got beyond the small stretch of town; the most intriguing sight was a sign that said "Slow down you're here".
I made it to the small terminal in time for the 5:30 ferry. I started off sitting outside under a slight cover next to a guy with a dog. But once we started moving, it felt more prudent to venture inside because the the rain seemed to be coming down harder.
I'd seen a man playing bagpipes near the Auckland ferry terminal the previous day. He was there again. And if it wasn't surreal enough to be listening to a bagpipe player in the middle of New Zealand, this time he was playing the theme from Star Wars. That was definitely something you don't experience every day!
Once I was back in town, the rain had abated and I headed straight to a highly rated ice cream shop near my hotel that I'd been dying to try. I was not at all disappointed. It wasn't just the sweet treat that made the stop memorable; it was the fact that this shop treated ice cream like high art. You waited in line and then "consulted" with someone at the counter over your purchase. Some of the options were quite extra- you could even top your cone with chocolate in the shape of the Sky Tower! I just chose a boring waffle cone with "NZ Hokey Pokey" ice cream. For those unfamiliar with that flavor, which is a traditional offering in that part of the world, it's basically ice cream with honeycomb bites in it; I frequently order it both because I am amused by the name as well as liking the flavor...that's what it's all about! In this particular case, the ice cream was covered in a layer of chocolate and then with a single swirling line of honeycomb bits. I sat outside in front of the store to savor my beautiful and delicious ice cream cone.
When I was done with my treat, I headed back to the hotel for an evening of writing and getting stuff together. I had a very early morning the next day so I definitely wanted to get to bed early. There were certainly more things to do in the city, but most of them wouldn't have been open at 7pm on a Sunday and I felt satisfied that I'd covered my top priorities. After a very depressing start, my time in Auckland had been a great start to my journey- I'd dabbled in both adventure and culture while also enjoying some leisurely exploration.
My 4:50am alarm wasn't as painful as it might have ordinarily been thanks to the fact that I'd been very disciplined in getting to bed early the previous evening. I got ready, ate some bread that I'd bought at the supermarket on my arrival day and then proceeded downstairs to check out. I sat in the lobby for a few minutes because I was shockingly running a bit early.
When planning my trip, I'd jumped at the chance to combine 2 activities on my "must do" list with transportation from Auckland to Rotorua, the city on the Northern Island which was my next destination. It would be a long 12 hour day of travel but I felt it would be a good use of my time to be combining activities. Especially since these were group activities which would be the same whether I participated through a tour or if I'd arranged my own transport.
The tour company had offered a choice of bus stops, and I was able to find one on Queen Street that was only a short walk from my hotel. I arrived at the designated spot about 10 minutes before the 6:10 pickup time and enjoyed the quiet early Auckland morning. I began to get a little nervous when the bus hadn't arrived on time and I mentally tried to work out what my backup plan might be. Fortunately, I didn't have to worry about alternate arrangements since the mini bus finally arrived, only a few minutes late.
After boarding, I found out that only a couple of the others would be joining me on the black water rafting adventure I'd booked; the rest had chosen a more mellow exploration of the Waitomo glow worm caves by boat. The way this tour company worked, transit was shared between multiple activities that could be combined in several different ways.
It was about a 2.5 hour drive to Waitomo. Some of the scenery was interesting but, despite getting enough rest, I managed to doze through much of the journey. I'm quite talented at sleeping on transit!
As I got off the bus, I felt like I was about to confront another adventure beyond my comfort zone that made me question my life choices. We had a half hour before our tour started, so I relaxed in the lobby cafe with the 2 other women who had booked the same tour. There was an awkward comedic moment when one of the women said her name was November; I wasn't sure why she was felt the need to tell me the current month, but apparently that was actually her name. She wasn't really sure what the tour was about but it was the only one she could find for the day. The other woman had a more usual name, Renee, and also more knowledgeable expectations for the excursions.
At 9:30am, we joined our group which consisted of 9 other guests plus 2 guides- an overly energetic man and a woman who was named Pippin after the Lord of the Rings character. We were led to a changing area and my arms were soon filled with heavy, damp, slightly mildewy smelling gear that I'd need to put on for my adventure. I'd worn a swimsuit underneath my clothes, and I had to top it with a slightly too big jumpsuit, a zip up jacket, and booties. After stashing my carry on bag in a huge locker that was shared by the entire group, my outfit was completed with a yellow helmet and white boots. I was sure I was styling- not! At least the logo on my jacket was purplish.
After everyone got their attire together, we posed for a group photo and then were led to a pile of tubes. We each picked out one, which would be our transport through the cave. I'm not sure if there were any subtle differences between the array of options; I just picked one randomly off the pile.
We took a short van ride to the end of the lake where we were to take turns practicing our jumps. You see, at several points during the tour, we had to hold our tube to our butts and then jump backwards into a body of water below. I'd done tons of research so this came as no surprise to me. I'd hesitated to book the tour because I worried I'd tense up and freeze- because the idea of jumping backwards into the water seemed at least slightly insane. I was definitely on the verge of freaking out because, wow, the platform looked high! But fortunately the guides told us we'd be jumping from a much lower pier than the one that had looked so intimidating.
I waited in line while those in front of me took turns jumping in... and then invariably exclaiming loudly how ungodly cold the water was! It felt a little surreal when I finally reached the front of the line- like, was I really going to jump butt first into the water? But I did it with no hesitation in spite of my my nerves. It was fine, even a bit fun... except the others had been spot on about the frigidity of the water temperature! And also I felt water go up my nose and mouth which was not a pleasant sensation. I guess the test jump serves 2 purposes: training the tour members on what lies ahead and also helping the guides figure out right away if the tour might be too much for anyone. Everyone in my group managed to complete the jump without issue. We also practiced our "human eel" formation in which we sat in our tubes in a single file row, holding onto the legs of the person behind us- we'd need to do this in the cave at one point to ensure that the group stayed together while floating gently through the water.
We got back in the van in our now more-damp attire for another short drive to the actual cave. Once there, we all slish-sloshed down a path to get to the entrance. After standing in a single file line, I descended not-so-gracefully down a stairway of rocks, and- with the help of the guides- entered the cave where I'd spend the next hour-or-so wading through water and floating in my tube. At one point, we glided in our tubes through a confining narrow corridor which fortunately didn't freak me out like I'd thought it might. At another point when we paused, the guides passed out chocolate fish- but at first they pretended they were something gross just to mess with us.
There were 2 waterfall jumps which required using our skills we practiced in jumping backwards. The first wasn't any more scary than the practice pier, but the 2nd one seemed rather high. We were told that we didn't technically have to do that jump although I'm not clear what the alternative would have been. I just summoned all my inner fortitude to take advantage of this unique opportunity, reminding myself that I'd never again have this chance. I jumped and pushed back off the ledge... and felt like I was in the air for quite a bit before finally splashing down into the water. I was so proud that I'd faced my fears (although, technically, since I'd been leaping backwards, I hadn't been literally facing them)
The most magical part of the tour was when we floated gently in the human eel formation with our headlamps shut off. The channel we passed through was illuminated by thousands of tiny glow worms. The mood was heightened by our guide, Pippin, singing a lovely song. At the very end, we glided calmly in our tubs again without our headlamps; this time we didn't hold onto each other so it felt a bit like we were drifting amok as you'd hear an occasional person questioning whether they were touching a rock or a person. At this time, Pippin sang another song- this one from Lord of the Rings. We were extremely lucky to be guided by someone with vocal talent; that is not a standard part of the tour.
All too soon, some light started to pierce through the dark cave and I knew it was about time to emerge back into the real world. I was so glad I'd signed up for the Black Labyrinth tour instead of giving into my nerves and taking the safer option. It was such a unique experience which combined the beauty of the cave and glow worms with just enough of a dash of adventure to add some excitement without being too scary. The tour required a decent level of fitness and good agility, but it wasn't too taxing.
When we got out of the cave, it was raining which wasn't a huge deal since we were already wet. I hadn't noticed until the previous day that my reservation said I should bring a towel; I hadn't packed one and obviously couldn't just take one from my Auckland hotel since I wouldn't be returning there. Fortunately, when we got back to the main building after a short van ride, I was able to borrow an extra towel from the guides. There were again separate changing areas for men and women, with showers that had a curtain for privacy. I just went into the shower briefly with my swimsuit on so I could get rid of any obvious dirt; the hot water felt great! I changed into street clothes and put my bathing suit into a large ziploc baggie so it wouldn't get the rest of my luggage wet.
The tour experience concluded with us lining up to feast on tomato soup and bagels. I started to get overwhelmed with people so I didn't bother to toast my bagel; it was fine as it was. The warm soup really hit the spot, even though the cave water apparently wasn't as cold as usual (or as the body of water in which we'd practiced). Of course, I had to buy the photo package- they weren't the best photos but they're the only visual souvenirs I could have of the experience. On the way to make my purchase, I noticed an adorable and inexpensive plush animal in a tube which I absolutely had to take home with me as a cute reminder of a wonderful adventure.
We got back in the minibus along with most, if not all, of the people who had gone on the boat ride through the caves. I didn't really talk with any of them so I don't know what they thought of their excursion.
It continued to rain during most of the hour and a half ride to Hobbiton, and my spirits darkened like the skies in anticipation of a soggy outdoor tour with less than ideal conditions for once-in-a-lifetime photographs. I kept hoping for a clearing, but there seemed to be no end in sight. I just reconciled myself to the fact that I can't control the weather.
The definition of "miraculous timing" might be the fact that the rain suddenly stopped just around the time when we pulled into the Hobbiton parking lot and did not resume again until we were finished with the walking tour. Dry buy grey skies alone would have been a most welcome condition. But nature took matters one level further by allowing the sun to shine down on the beautiful green pastures of Hobbiton for most of the tour. I still can't believe my incredible luck!
When they were scouting locations for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the film makers discovered a farm with green rolling hills that seemed to be the ideal location to shoot the Shire scenes. But after those movies were completed, all the sets were destroyed. When it came time to film The Hobbit trilogy about 10 years later, the farm owners insisted on erecting permanent sets this time. Having observed the number of tours that moved like clockwork, I believe this worked out to be quite a sound financial decision for them.
An excursion to Hobbiton is very high on the list of "things to do" on a trip to New Zealand. I'm not remotely a Tolkien fan- I've never read the books and I only recently saw a couple of the Lord of the Rings movies before my trip- and 'm sure the experience would be more meaningful to a fan in the sense that it would feel like a dream come true. But I feel the attraction is well worth visiting even if you don't have a sentimental attachment to the movies.
From the main area, full size tour buses leave every 10-20 minutes for the very short drive to the start of the walking tour. Then you spend about an hour and a half exploring the charming world of the Hobbits, walking up and down paths along the hills as you pause to look at quaint little hobbit holes. I was quite impressed with the level of whimsical detail- things like laundry hanging on a line, a scarecrow, or a table set up like someone was preparing a lakeside lunch. The landscape itself was gorgeous beyond words with bountiful displays of colorful flowers. We could scarcely have had better weather for enjoying the idyllic setting.
At the end of the tour, we stopped at The Green Dragon bar where we were able to enjoy a complimentary mug of one of several beverages. I elected to try the (alcoholic) cider which was quite good. There were additional food and beverage options available for purchase, although we only had about 15 minutes to enjoy them. I sat and chatted with one of the ladies who had also been on the cave tour with me. The other woman inexplicably stayed behind at the coffee shop by the entrance; I don't understand why someone would pay for a tour and not participate when there were seemingly no physical reasons for skipping it.
The Hobbiton tour was very well organized and enjoyable. However, each group consisted of a full busload of people so it was hard to hear explanations if you were standing toward the back of the group, as I often did after lingering for a photo at the previous stopping point. You're required to join a tour even if you're traveling independently, although it's possible to book a private tour (up to 4 people for about $500 USD; the standard tour is about $57 USD). It's nonetheless a great experience, and the tours are well managed so that the area doesn't feel overcrowded.
After we took the bus back to the main area, we had a very short time to use the restroom and peruse the gift shop. While I could certainly have used a rest stop, it was more of a priority for me to buy some things for people back home like my nieces who are huge Hobbit fans. And of course I am horribly indecisive. The end result was that I came back with a lot of cool souvenirs to dole out... and fortunately my bladder never exploded. I was probably the last one to leave which made me a little self conscious but it was worth it.
At this point, I was transferred with my bags to another minibus that was headed to Rotorua. All the other occupants had started there as well; I don't know if anyone had started in Rotorua and then transferred to my bus to Auckland but that was an option that had been available.
The ride to Rototua was less than an hour and a half. I was supposed to be dropped off at a central part of town, but the driver was kind enough to drop everyone off at their accomodations instead. I'd booked an apartment style hotel which would make it easier to do some laundry during my stay since there was a washer/dryer right in my room. As a bonus, the room also came with an outdoor hot tub which, alas, I was not able to make use of as much as I'd have liked due to how crazy packed my days were as well as the fact that a sign advised not using it after 10:30pm so as not to disturb others with the noise.
After getting settled, I decided to take a little walk around the town to get my bearings. It was 6:30pm but the sun didn't set until around 8pm so there was still an abundance of light and the skies were fortunately once again dry. Rotorua is a very small town (at least the main area) and it's very walkable. The streets seemed very quiet on a Monday night, with many stores already closed for the day. I made my way to Lake Rotorua since I am always drawn to bodies of water. But I was really hungry so I didn't spend much time lingering there.
Near the lake was an area called "Eat Streat" which my hotel had recommended since it contained a high concentration of good restaurants. I was perusing menu after menu in my notoriously indecisive way... until I came to one that listed a dessert called "CBK's Famous Skillet Cookie" Oh, yes- I immediately realized I'd found the perfect spot to have dinner!
For my main course, I ended up choosing the Skillet Mac 'n' Cheese with bacon which meant that my meal had quite the skillet theme. Both my entrée and my dessert were fabulous! I was very happy with my decision to dine there. One of the things that was hardest to get used to about New Zealand was that in most restaurants, you don't get a check- you just go up to someone at the register who will have it.
I was too tired to hit the grocery store to stock up the fridge, so I walked straight back to my hotel. I took a brief dip in the hot tub and enjoyed its massaging bubbles before taking a proper shower to get rid of any residual cave gunk. I was exhausted after such a long day, but it had been well worth it. I'd thoroughly enjoyed the 2 amazing activities I'd participated in and was glad I'd been able to combine them with transport between cities.
Since I'd collapsed into bed at around 10:30pm the night before, I ended up awakening well before my 8am alarm. By the time I was ready, I had over a half hour before my 8:50am pickup so I decided to try getting breakfast at the French cafe a couple doors down which my hotel had recommended. I wasted a bunch of time because when they told me to sit and look at the menu, I thought it meant that someone would eventually come by to take my order. I was just about ready to leave in a huff because I was sick of waiting when they informed me that you actually order from the counter. Well, if I'd known that, there would have been no need waste time perusing the menu at all because one of my (very few) immutable Life Rules is that if there are Nutella crepes on the menu, there is never a need to look further.
I managed to get my food with just barely enough time to eat before I needed to leave. The crepe was fabulous. The café itself was also quite cute, and I enjoyed its French styled wall decorations which included a Les Mis logo printed on the flag of France and several cat themed pictures with French writing. My breakfast had gotten off to a rocky start, but it was worth the minor misunderstanding.
My morning tour, which I'd booked with the same company as the previous day's tours, was to Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. Rotorua is known for is for its geysers, mud pools, and hot thermal springs. My destination was a bit of a commercialized compilation of highlights of some of these features. I most wanted to go there because some of their hot springs had some bright and unusual colors…. and of course I love all things that are colorful.
The driver who took us there seemed a bit affected and overly cheery but she was otherwise fine. After dropping a few people off at Waimangu (another geothermal site which I didn't have a chance to explore), we made a brief initial stop to see a couple mud pools that were just outside the park. It was fun watching them bubble up, as if they were alive. I felt a little rushed there, as I would have liked to have walked up to an overlook but I didn't feel like I had enough time for that.
One person had some apparent difficulty understanding that we were meant to get back into the bus so we were a little late leaving to our next destination, the Lady Knox Geyser, which was only a few minutes drive away. We had to hurry into the arena as the demonstration was already starting. I somehow managed to find a tiny bit of space to stand atop the last row of bench seats; the area was already quite packed with spectators. It was indeed impressive to see the water shoot up but honestly this was one of the least thrilling parts of the day both because it was so crowded and also because the eruption had to be manually triggered by adding soap (which I'd known in advance). There are lots of explanations of why adding soap doesn't take away from the authenticity, but all I can say is that it felt forced to me.
Finally, we were taken to our last stop where we had about an hour and a half to explore the main pathways within the park. After experiencing the crowds at the geyser, I was afraid that the viewing areas of the geothermal pools would be congested but I was pleasantly surprised. Some of the further sections felt downright empty which was quite nice. The tourists seemed to disperse nicely so that I never felt claustrophobic or like I had a hard time seeing the pools; occasionally, I had to wait a few seconds to eke out a good vantage point but it was never too crazy.
I'd been worried that I wouldn't have enough time at the park but I was able to see everything. ! It might have been nice to have been able to maintain a more leisurely pace, but I didn't have a rental car and the park was far enough out of town that a taxi would have been prohibitively expensive. And even if I'd had all the time in the world, I would still have felt like I was in a race with the weather as I made my way around the park. The sky seemed threatening and I wanted to see as much as possible before it started raining. Once again, nature bestowed some awesome luck on me as it didn't start to rain (gently) until I was just about ready to leave.
For visitors who are slower or less mobile, the walk is broken into 3 parts and you could complete the first loop of 1.5km and still see the most famous highlights. Of course, I wanted to see everything so I followed all 3 trails. The park was great, and I the colorful springs were just as beautiful and wondrous as I'd hoped. In addition to the sights, I enjoyed the overall experience of walking around and exploring the approximately 3km (1.9 miles) of paths. At one point, the trail included a mini bush walk which was quite peaceful as I encountered very few others there. Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland was a beautiful place to walk around and gaze at unique geothermal formations that were like nothing I've ever seen back home.
While taking the van back to town, I did some online research into Japanese restaurants in town. It was after 1pm when we got back so I was quite hungry! I ended up ordering Katsu-don at a really cute little place that was just a couple blocks from my hotel. It was delicious.
I'd originally thought would make an excellent activity for inclement weather, but I headed there after lunch even though it wasn't raining. They didn't seem to time me… nor do I think they mentioned time in the pricing but I only stayed a little over an hour. I ordered a "capurrccino" since a beverage was included, and was slightly disappointed that my drink wasn't adorned with a cat face in the cream as per the menu drawings. Oh, well.
There were some really fluffy cats at this café- including a huge guy named Volcano who seemed to adore being petted. I also saw a mischievous cat try to drink someone else's beverage; I'm not sure if it was the same one as was depicted in a "Wanted" sign on one of the walls. Speaking of walls, I loved that one was a lovely shade of light purple. Anyway, I delighted in all the cute cats and it was a great way to spend some time, especially since I always miss my kitties when I'm away. On my way out, I bought a cute little puffy purple kitty key ring to send to a friend.
I hadn't actually booked any activities for the next day although I'd had some ideas in mind, so I stopped in the I-Site visitor information center to firm up my plans. It was a smart move as they were able to offer me some discounts and deals that I wouldn't have gotten on my own. I also asked them about some other options that I could do on my own, including the Redwoods tree walk. Because there was a taxi waiting right outside, I decided to head straight for the Redwoods. (note: Uber did not operate in Rotorua)
As the name implies, the Redwoods is a forest of Redwood trees. You can hike the trails for free- which I didn't do because of lack of time as well as the fact that I don't feel safe hiking alone. I went on the walk that is a series of elevated platforms which incurred a small fee. The area is illuminated at night with colored lanterns hanging from the trees which I imagined would be quite beautiful but unfortunately I wouldn't have a chance to be there in the evening.
I've long been a little terrified of hanging bridges and staircases you can look through… which is exactly why I was intrigued by the treewalk. I mean, it had been well over 24 hours since I'd last challenged myself to do anything that had even remotely terrified me! It actually wasn't as scary as I'd expected; the walk was pretty empty so there was no one else around whose walking would shake the hanging bridges which obviously made them easier to cross. (on the other hand, it was freaky thinking that there would be no one around to notice in the off chance that I got injured) At one point, there was a newly added option to climb even higher and walk on see-through grates instead of planks. I took that challenge even though the grates were much more intimidating for me. I was nervous I might drop something, so I was relieved when it came time to walk down to rejoin the regular elevated path.
The lady at I-site had shown me on the map that it was possible to walk back to town so I decided to do that rather than call a cab. I'd clearly misunderstood her as I think she only mentioned that part of the walk was 30 minutes- not the entire journey. At any rate, I somehow missed the scenic way I'd intended to take and instead ended up on a very touristy street that was lined with motels. By the time I'd realized I wasn't on my desired route, I didn't want to waste time backtracking. I'd already had to turn around once when I'd dropped my camera lens cover; fortunately, I was able to retrieve it from the ground just a short bit back from where I noticed it was gone.
I was thankful when I could tell that I was finally getting near the center of town, and I stopped at a supermarket a few blocks from my hotel. I wasn't really thrilled with their options so I decided to try another one a block away. However, all the exits were blocked by shopping carts. Rather than trying to move them- which I thought might seem suspicious- I got in a short queue and then explained to the cashier that I was an idiot tourist who had changed her mind about buying anything. And then I was liberated!
The second supermarket also didn't quite have what I was looking for but I had to get something because by then I didn't really have sufficient time to go out for dinner. So I picked up a bag of instant tortellini. I also wanted to get some yogurt for the mornings but the single serve options were limited so I ended up with a pouch of drinkable Moogurt, a brand marketed at children. At least they had some Coke Zero.
When I got back to my room, it took me forever to heat up the tortellini on the electric stove... even after I realized that a switch needed to be flipped on for the stove to exude any heat. I finally got so impatient that I dumped everything on a plate and stuck it in the microwave. It still wasn't that hot but I was hungry and time was running out so I ate it anyway. That was surely the worst meal of the trip… even if you count the meals that I skipped. But at least my stomach wasn't empty.
At 8pm, I was picked up to go on a night hike through the Okataina Reserve, an off-the-beaten path location just a little outside the city. In addition to our guide, the group consisted of 2 young German guys and a middle-aged couple from Toronto who were the victims of some "Come From Away" babble from me. We drove out of town just as the sun was setting over the lake. Much to my chagrin, I wasn't able to take a satisfactory photo of the beautiful setting from our moving vehicle. I did, however, manage to take a mediocre photo of the new Kmart that was apparently exciting for the town; I found it ironic that New Zealand was getting new Kmarts at the same time they were disappearing from the US.
Once we got to the reserve, we were given headlamps, handheld flashlights, and reflective vests. Many times we kept our lights illuminated to red because it would allow us to see without scaring the animals to whom that color light was not visible. In that manner we were able to spot a few adorable little wallabies on our way into (and later out of) the forest.
The hike was wicked cool, although at times it was a bit challenging due to the darkness and the wet ground, combined with my general clumsiness. But the guide was terrific and the small group size was perfect for peaceful exploration. Our guide was as enthusiastic as he was knowledgeable and he told us a lot about the trees we were passing. I remember virtually none of the information he'd shared, of course. But it was interesting at the time.
At one point, the guide instructed us to turn off our headlamps temporarily so that we could turn them on again for a dramatic reveal of a waterfall- which of course we could hear before we could see it. At another point, we turned off our headlamps in order to reveal a myriad of thousands of tiny glow worms illuminating like stars in the bush. It was just as magical a moment as when I'd seen the glow worms in the cave the previous day.
The guide was also keen to experiment with shadow photography which resulted in some really cool shots that he later sent to us. He was a passionate geek (in the best sense) about everything related to the hike which made it extremely enjoyable. At the end of the trip before returning to town, he served us hot chocolate and shortbread which we enjoyed together by the van. I'm so glad that I came across the hike on Tripadvisor because it was a fabulous and unique way to spend an evening. The hike felt authentic and not at all mainstream touristy.
I probably got back to the hotel well after 11 and I was exhausted. I'd walked nearly 11 miles over the course of a day that had included colorful geothermal hot springs, a cat café, a tree walk, and a night hike. It had been a pretty damn amazing jam-packed day.
Once again, I got up before my alarm which this time was set for 7:30am. I didn't need to take a shower because my morning activity was white water rafting in the Kaituna river over the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world (7m or 23 feet)! Yep, it was time for another challenge! I'd white water rafted once before, ages ago in the Austrian Alps. But we hadn't gone over any waterfalls or anything. And I could barely remember anything except that I'd enjoyed it… and that this one abrasive woman in our group had ripped her suit which caused the rest of us to snicker. Good times.
When I'd booked the previous day at the I-Site, I'd received a fabulous discount which that only available for the earliest time in the morning which suited me perfectly. The deal included free photos which fabulous since I always buy the photo package. I'd originally planned to book with a different company but I couldn't resist this deal and I'm quite pleased with my experience; there are several companies offering similar experiences and I think they are all good.
At 8:15, I was met at my hotel by a really cool, outgoing young guy who did a great job of getting me excited for the experience. En route, we picked up a couple of young Germans. When we arrived at the facility, I was pleasantly surprised to be reunited with the friendly Indian couple who had been on my zipline tour in Waiheke! We exchanged happy greetings and when the group had to split up into 2 rafts, I joined them which worked out well because the others (including the 2 Germans from the van) were a bit more daring than we were.
I thought I did a wonderful job gearing up in a waterproof jumpsuit and booties. Until I was corrected that the booties went over the jumpsuit. And, umm, I had them on the wrong feet. Ooops. Since it was relatively cool out, I opted for a long sleeve jacket over my jumpsuit as did most others. My attire was completed with a life jacket and helmet. Just another stylin' morning of travel!
Once everyone was ready, we hopped in the van… and essentially rode across the street to the river. Then the staff brought the rafts to the water and we got inside. Before doing anything, they imparted safety information and basic instructions. Near the start, they had us repeat a few words in Maori for luck… though for all I know they could have been gibberish. But it was a nice touch. I'm ridiculously uncoordinated so it often took me more than a trivial effort to try to follow the very simple instructions which were really just "paddle", "back paddle", or "hold on". Obviously I survived so my awkwardness did not have an overall detrimental effect on the voyage. It just made me feel a bit silly at times.
We went over 2 small waterfalls before getting to the big one. The pictures of the raft going over the 7m waterfall seem to look rather scary, especially the ones where the raft almost disappears into the pounding waters. But honestly, it was one of the least intimidating challenges of my trip. Even when we were sitting at the top of the waterfall looking down, it didn't feel that crazy. I was a little concerned that we might flip over, which they said happens to about 10% of the rafts. That would have been freaky. But fortunately, I didn't have to figure out how I'd react in that scenario.
The drop itself happened so quickly that I didn't even have time to realize that we'd practically disappeared under the intense flow of the water for a brief moment. There was a bit of an adrenaline rush to be sure, but the dropping sensation was probably less than on a theme park flume ride. It was the perfect combination of fun and adventure. We were all smiles when we posed for photos at the bottom.
I was almost disappointed when we were done with the big drop because it had happened too quickly. But we still had at least 20 minutes where we continued to raft through the really beautiful area. During that time, we got to do some cool things like ride a rapid outside of the raft- I sorta regret holding on but that's what the other couple did. (the occupants of the other raft did not) We also stood up during another rapid, holding our oars as though we were rock stars holding guitars, and another time we "surfed". I had such a great time laughing and enjoying being out on the water on such a lovely day! (well except for occasionally getting water up my nose or on my eyes) I mean, if you look at my face in some of the photos, all you see is pure joy. When we were done, part of me wanted to go again… right then and there. I think that out of all the amazing activities I tried in New Zealand, white water rafting has to get the award for "Most Fun".
It was only around 11am when I got back to my hotel, so I still had plenty of time left in the day. The first thing I did was to stop at the front desk so I could make arrangements for my early departure the next morning before the office opens. The process proved to be much harder than it needed to be because the woman at the desk was really new. But she was sweet, and I eventually managed to acquire a Super Shuttle reservation for 6am.
Since one reason for choosing this hotel was to have access to a laundry machine in my room, I did my laundry. While it was running, I watched "Crazy Rich Asians" which was one of the free movies offered by hotel's TV system. The timing was excellent- my clothes were all clean and dry just about 5 minutes before the end of the movie. After some jam packed days, it felt nice to spend a bit of time indulging in laziness. (although I was also productive) I'd been wanting to see the movie for awhile and I enjoyed it, but I felt a bit let down from all the hype.
I ate the leftovers of the previous night's mediocre tortellini for lunch because I hate wasting food. And then it was time for me to figure out what I wanted to do for the afternoon. It was about 1:30, so I had about 4 hours to play around with. I'd really wanted to go zorbing during my time in Rotorua because it's such a unique activity that looks like fun. But I couldn't justify to myself the overhead in time and money that would be required for a quick (but exhilarating) roll down a hill in a huge clear ball. If I'd had a rental car, it would have been much easier, but getting there would require either buses or a taxi as the place was not in walking distance of the center of town. I also felt that zorbing would likely be a letdown after having such an absolutely amazing time earlier rafting. I wish I could have fit zorbing into my itinerary, but after weighing the pros and cons, I decided with a tinge of regret that it wouldn't be the best use of my limited remaining time in Rotorua.
Instead, I spent a lovely afternoon strolling around Rotorua. The city was very walkable and a plethora of roundabouts made it easy to cross the streets, although there was usually little traffic. I'm glad I had a chance to explore it at my leisure.
My first stop was at an ice cream place at the end of Eat Streat. I ended up with a cone of Gold Digger ice cream which was described as "Honeycomb flavoured ice cream with pieces of honeycomb wrapped in chocolate." It was very similar to Hokey Pokey, and quite delicious. I always love trying local ice cream shops and this was no exception.
I then proceeded to walk along a path by Lake Rotorua. It was a quiet walk, in which I encountered very few people. I'm sure I saw more birds than humans. The walk extends quite far and I would have seen a different section of it had I taken the correct scenic route home from the Redwoods. The waterway along the path morphs into Sulphur Bay, where it is on top of an active geothermal field. The water in this area had an interesting whitish tinge. It was quite peaceful gazing out at the water and the gentle rolling green hills in the background. The scenery was especially dramatic because it was clear that a storm was coming through- winds were picking up and I started to notice grey clouds.
But I still persisted on enjoying and photographing the view. That is, until I felt some rain drops… which quickly turned into heavy rain. I ran in the direction of town, hoping to find some shelter; of course this was the one time I didn't have a rain coat with me. As luck would have it, I quickly stumbled across the Rotorua Energy Events Center, a venue that is used for events ranging from theatre and sports to conventions. For my purposes, all that mattered was that its entrance was covered by a generous awning which I could stand under to avoid getting drenched.
Fortunately, the storm passed swiftly- from the times on my photos, it looks like it spanned less than 5 minutes. When it cleared, I wandered through the Government Gardens with its fanciful floral displays. I love how you can see droplets of water from the recent precipitation lingering on some of the flowers I photographed. Just by the gardens was the Rotorua Museum whose unique Elizabethan architecture I admired. Unfortunately, I couldn't enter because the building had been closed after it was determined it fell well below earthquake safety standards.
And then I stumbled upon the Sulphur Lake Sculpture Trail which consisted of 18 sculptures that had been placed on display around a geothermal lake. It was the perfect setting for a leisurely walk. In an artsy mood, I also peeked inside the nearby Arts Village. I was hoping to find earrings to buy but none of the ones on display really struck me.
Walking back to my hotel, I decided to continue on and take a look at Kuirau Park which was a couple blocks on the other side of town from my previous wanderings. I didn't really have time to look around in much depth but I did indulge in a brief soak in the thermal foot baths. On the way back, I saw a plaque honoring Jean Batten who was born in a nearby house. An aviation pioneer, she made quite a few notable flights in the 1930's. I naturally was reminded of Captain Beverley Bass (from "Come From Away") and hummed a bit of "Me and the Sky" to myself.
It was a lovely afternoon. I was in my element exploring and taking photos… and just generally reveling in feeling completely free to go and do whatever I wanted, in whatever time it took. The sensation of being liberated of boundaries or rules was totally the opposite of what an organized activity like zorbing would entail… and it was precisely what I needed at that moment in time. While I like to experience as much as possible of the noted sights wherever I go, I don't want my travels to be organized like a strict "To Do" list where I check off each item. I need to also work in time to just be, preferably by myself. It's an awesome feeling when I can discover gems like the sculpture trail that are unexpected delights. Sometimes, allowing the time to roam means I can't make it to an attraction I'd hoped to see- and that's completely ok. I am glad I trusted my wanderlust instincts that afternoon even if it meant that I didn't get to go zorbing.
I took a very short break in the hotel room during which time I tossed my bathing suit into the dryer so that it wouldn't be wet for the plane ride the next morning. Then I walked a half a block for my 5:30 pickup for the cultural performance at Mitai Maori Village. I'd really wanted to see something representing traditional native Maori culture during my time in New Zealand and I'd chosen this dinner show with some trepidation that it might be a little too cheesy-touristy for my liking. There is no denying that the evening is touristy as evidenced by the fact that the audience was filled with people from all over the world (and few, if any locals), but it was a lot of fun and presented in a way that seemed to honor the culture.
When we arrived at the village, everyone from our minibus checked in and was given a table number for the dining room. A lot of them were at the same table. I, on the other hand, was seated at a large table all by myself for what seemed like a super long time which felt unbelievably awkward. I was so glad when the other people from my table eventually trickled in. I ended up being seated with a good mix of friendly, well-traveled people, and I enjoyed their company.
A couple ladies in Maori dress came around serving hors d'oeuvres and I went up to the bar to get a glass of Chardonnay wine since the deal I got for booking at the I-Site included a beverage. Once everyone had arrived, a guy who functioned as the master of ceremonies gathered a count of the countries represented in the audience. And then he asked for a volunteer to act as the tribal chief during the show. No one raised their hands at first and I would have been all about relishing a chance to bask in the spotlight. But, alas, the chief had to be male. They eventually gave some bullshit reasons about how men had to be chiefs because the chief has a chance of dying in war, and women's lives were too precious because killing them would also be killing future generations. But it was 2018 and no one was going to get killed in a tourist show, so I am still a bit bitter that they wouldn't allow women to play the role of the chief.
At any rate, one of the guys from my table ended up being our representative. Once that business was settled, we went outside to waterway to watch Maori arrive by paddling on a traditional water craft. It was obviously hokey and staged, but it was nonetheless kinda cool to see. After that, the chief helped present trays of food that would (supposedly) be our dinner. And then we filed into the theatre for the cultural show. Since I hate photos with heads in the way, I managed to sit in the front row next to our chief.
The show was a lot of fun, and of course it included a haka war dance as well as other demonstrations of traditional games, instruments, and dances. It felt more like the performers were sharing their culture and traditions rather than some shows I've seen in my travels which feel like they are just presenting stereotypes of what tourists want to see. Over the course of the evening, I learned a bit about Maori culture including information about their distinctive facial tattoos. Part of the performance had our chief and one from a 2nd dining room going up to the chief onstage to make peace with him.
After the performance, we returned to the dining room for a buffet dinner. Everything was delicious but I particularly enjoyed the seafood chowder and sweet potatoes. The final part of the evening was a walk outside in the dark to see more glow worms. This was by far my least favorite of my 3 glow worm experiences; it felt annoying to be herded out amongst huge crowds and the reveal was not nearly as magical the ones on my previous days in the region. Finally, it was time to take the bus back to my hotel.
I couldn't believe that it was already time to pack up to be saying farewell to the North Island. I was really glad I'd challenged myself to step out of my comfort zone on an almost daily basis during the early days of the trip. I still had to decide about one future challenge that was a bit up in the air, but I was leaning towards going for it. I went to bed feeling very at peace both with myself and my surroundings.
As was becoming usual, I woke up before my alarm- although this time it was only a minute early. I quickly got myself together, ate a protein bar, drank my last moogurt and then headed downstairs where I slipped the room key under the door to the reception which was still closed. My Super Shuttle came promptly at 6am and I was the only passenger.
I arrived at the airport at 6:15 for my 7:15 am flight which normally wouldn't seem like enough time. But not only is Rotorua Regional Airport really small… it also had absolutely no security screening. Zero. None. I was a little bummed that I'd left some bottled water in my room since it turned out that there was no reason I couldn't have carried it with me. The airport was cozy and comfortable, and it was cool to see a statue honoring aviator Jean Batten after having first learned about her from a plaque in town.
I'd been quite pleased that I'd been able to reserve a seat at the front of the aircraft since usually that's the most convenient location. However, we boarded (and later disembarked) our small plane from the back so… it wasn't as good a location as I'd expected. I always hope for an empty seat next to me so I was obviously disappointed when a guy sat in the aisle seat. He took up a lot of space and my nose felt like he hadn't showered very recently. As he crowded me rubbing off lottery ticket after lottery ticket, I was quite annoyed. But it turned out that he was a really nice guy who offered me one of his snacks later in the flight. There's probably a lesson there about not judging people by their smell.
New Zealand is known for its beautiful landscapes, and they were highlighted quite nicely on my flight. I was so glad that I always book window seats as I greedily looked out on sunny unobstructed views of Rotorua, Taupo, and other magnificent vistas on the North Island. As we approached Wellington and then crossed toward the South Island, the landscape became obstructed by white fluffy clouds. But snow capped mountains occasionally poked through the cloud cover and made for quite a dramatic vision. This might have been the most scenic flight I've ever taken on a major airline carrier. (I'm not counting the sea plane in the Maldives which was crazy amazing)
It was quite a short flight- under 2 hours. Even so, the flight attendants passed around cookies. I was quite amused that the character on the Cookie Time label bore quite a resemblance to Gritty, the relatively new mascot for the Philadelphia Flyers ice hockey team. It was also quite a tasty snack, albeit a bit spicier than I'd expected.
While small, Christchurch airport serves international flights and therefore has some more sophisticated facilities than Rotorua. And yet, we retrieved checked bags right near our gate rather than from one of the baggage carousels. There were excellent signs and I quickly figured out where to go for my shuttle, but I decided to linger just a bit to take a look at the airport and its Christmas decorations since this would be my only time there. I was enjoying my wander when a worker stopped me because he said I looked lost. Apparently I quite often look lost which is really annoying to me when I'm not. Ugh. Anyway, he was a nice guy and he jokingly asked if Donald Trump was in my bag; he said that all the Americans he'd met cringed just like I did upon being asked this question. It's not the President's poltical ideology (if he has one) that sickens me as much as the fact that he acts like a spoiled bully toward anyone who disagrees with him.
The Super Shuttle was rather crowded and I felt a bit motion sick during the ride, so I was quite relieved to arrive at my hotel at around 10am. My room wasn't ready yet but I was able to leave my bags and they took my email address to let me know when it would be available. I took a few minutes to sit in the lobby as I still felt a bit tired and motion sick. I was excited to realize that the theatre where I'd be seeing a show that night was clearly visible when looking outside from the lobby. I hadn't intentionally chosen the hotel for its proximity to the theater; that was just a stroke of luck. I'd had the hardest time deciding where to stay in Christchurch until I saw a listing for a new moderately priced hotel with colorful rooms and a central location. I then discovered that there was a show I'd like to see, and was quite pleased that it happened to be playing a theatre that was so near. (it seemed even closer in person than it had on a map)
Once I was ready to head out, my first destination was cathedral square and the Christchurch Cathedral which were literally just steps away. It was sobering to see the cathdedral standing in ruins, still severely damaged from the devastating earthquake on Feb 22, 2011. And yet, the adjacent square was vibrant with a giant chess board, a large chalice sculpture and a tram stop where city tour vehicles stopped to collect passengers. It felt like an encapsulation of the city itself, still physically and emotionally reeling from the tragedy but yet alive with street art and energy.
From there, I walked to the Christchurch Transitional Cathedral, a triangular edifice opened in 2013 and built out of materials including reinforced cardboard tubes. (it's also known as The Cardboard Cathedral) The exterior is dramatic, with unique triangular shaped colored glass windows. But the interior is much more humble. As I entered, a group of children were practicing singing for a Christmas event. Despite not being religious, I was charmed by the beautiful moment and started to get ready to capture it on film when I was severely chided by a man not to photograph the children.
After putting my camera down, I was approached by a woman who felt bad about how harsh the man had been with me. It turned out that she was an expat from Michigan and we had a lovely conversation. Meanwhile, I saw plenty of other people taking cell phone photos that included the kids so I eventually did as well. Frankly, there was no good way to photograph the interior without also including children in the shot. Hopefully the 5-or-so people who look at my photos will not do anything improper with them.
On my way out, I saw a beautiful poem for peace on a table by purple, pink and white flowers. Combined with the pure voices of the children, it brought to mind the moving song "Prayer" from "Come From Away." The text of the poem is as follows:
God of many names, Lover of all peoples;
we pray for peace in our nations and in our world.
We pray for all who have the awesome responsibility of power
We pray for the innocent victims of violence and war.
Lead us and all the peoples of the world from death to life,
from falsehood to truth.
Lead us from despair to hope, from fear to trust.
Lead us from hate to love, from war to peace.
Let peace with justice fill our hearts, our world, our universe.
After leaving the cathedral, I checked my notes to find the location of an earthquake memorial that I knew was very close which I couldn't find listed on Google Maps. A year after the earthquake, an artist had erected a display entitled "185 Empty Chairs" which consisted of one white chair to represent each of the 185 individuals who had perished in the disaster. It was originally intended to be temporary, but it's obviously still there. The display consists of neat rows of chairs of all shapes and sizes- ranging from a baby seat and high chair to a wheelchair- on a modest patch of grass between parking lots. I found it to be a breathtakingly moving reminder of those lives that were tragically cut short. A list was posted with all the names and ages of the victims; I hadn't realized that about a third of the casualties were citizens of Asian countries.
I intended to visit the Christchurch Botanic Gardens next since it was so gorgeous out; it was one of the few days on my trip where there was absolutely no rain, and the high temperature was around 60 degrees though it felt warmer in the sun. But a funny thing happened on my way there. I was lured into a shopping center by an intriguing sign for a milkshake place. So I took a break to savor a Cookies and Cream milkshake with cookie crumbles. After relaxing and enjoying my refreshing treat, I perused a New Zealand souvenir store where I bought a Manuka honey hand cream in a cute limited edition new years container.
While I was spending some time at the shopping center, I received an email that my hotel room was ready. Since I was only a couple blocks away, I went there to get the key. The modern room was very comfortable, and I absolutely adored the luggage cubby by the bed. I took a bit of a nap which was punctuated by the sounds of construction outside. I didn't mind the noise since it kept me from sleeping longer than my brief intent.
At about 2, I was ready to head out and see some more of the city. After stopping to pick up my theatre ticket for that night, I visited the official Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial which had been erected in 2017 along the bank of the Avon River. Overall, I didn't find that this display had as big an emotional impact as the 185 chairs. However, I was deeply moved by some small tributes to a few of the victims that I presume were left by family members. I was particularly struck by a page showing smiling face of a 27 year old woman along with the lyrics of the Beatles' song "Blackbird." I recently did a little research and discovered that she was the lone American victim. She'd been scheduled to start her journey back to the US that night but she'd perished after exiting a tattoo parlour with a friend. I'm sure hers is just one of many similarly tragic stories.
I swear I heard someone puzzling over the memorial with their friend and uttering a dismissive comment like "oh it's probably people that died." Aside from the fact that the memorial's intent is clearly spelled out on the wall, I can't fathom how one could travel to Christchurch and be unaware of the 2011 earthquake. Ruins and massive amounts of rebuilding are literally just about everywhere. That fateful day still seems to be part of the city's very heartbeat and soul.
Finally, I made it the Christchurch Botanic Gardens. But by the time I got there, I was getting hungry and I didn't want to push myself too hard so I only allowed myself to get a glimpse of the area. What I saw was lovely- especially the elaborate peacock fountain. I'd hoped there might be somewhere nearby where I could grab a quick bite to eat but I didn't see anything promising. If I am ever back in the city, I would definitely want to spend more time exploring the gardens.
I had read about some shops in an Arts Center across the way but first I went into the wrong building. It was cool since I saw some interesting artsy stuff like a lawn decorated with a bunch of yellow orbs. I soon found the place I'd intended. I hoped it might have somewhere for lunch or some artsy stores, but there really wasn't too much of interest there except for the fudge store where I bought a friend some candy that was packaged in a cute little container that was decorated with the image of a cat.
I had a lot of issues finding a place to eat some lunch. I was in one of those moods where nothing really appealed to me. Plus, it was an off hour (around 3/3:30) and some places were closed until 5. I was craving pizza and I remembered passing a quick serve place that could suffice to satisfy that craving. So I tried to go to Hell (the name of the pizza place). But, apparently Hell didn't want me. After standing and waiting for plenty long enough time that someone should have attended to me (there were no other customers), I just gave up and went back to the hotel room where I ate a chocolate bar to tide myself over and then took a pre-show shower.
At around 5:20, I headed to an Italian restaurant right by the theatre. I was surprised that they were booked solid on a Thursday night but fortunately they were able to accommodate me on a high table with stools by the window. All I cared about was getting some pizza, and the view of the street outside was quite nice. I was so hungry that I practically devoured the entire Margherita pizza. I felt much better after having a proper meal.
I stolled along nearby New Regent street for a bit. I'd passed there earlier, so I was bummed when I saw a cookie shop that had closed at 5pm; I could totally have gotten one earlier when I'd been so hungry if only I'd walked down the little street with its charming pastel buildings. The gelato place I'd read about was fortunately still open so I stopped there for some dessert- a cone of mint chocolate. It was a rare time when I passed up the chance to order Hokey Pokey but I was in the mood for something a bit more refreshing. The shop was really quirky in a fun way, and I'm glad I had a chance to stop there.
That night, I saw the show "Peter Pan Goes Wrong" which was created by the same people who were responsible for the ridiculously funny "The Play That Goes Wrong" which I'd enjoyed on Broadway. I often see shows when I travel just because they happen to be in the city I'm visiting but this time I was excited because I had the chance to see a show that hadn't yet been presented in NY which I was pretty sure I'd genuinely enjoy.
I got to the theatre very early which gave me plenty of time to go to the restroom and pose for selfies. I didn't buy a program because they were $20 NZD (about $14 USD) and I expected that I'd be able to get some kind of free cast list as they had at "Here Lies Love." Well, they didn't have any such free (or lower cost) playbills. I was reluctantly going to buy a program after the show so I'd have a permanent record of who I'd seen in the cast but they no longer had vendors selling them. So I've got nothing but a ticket stub… and my memories. (for the record, the cast I saw was advertised as including Jay Laga’aia as Francis, Darcy Brown as Jonathan, Francine Cain as Sandra, Adam Dunn as Trevor, Luke Joslin as Robert, George Kemp as Dennis, Jordan Prosser as Max, Tammy Weller as Annie, Connor Crawford as Chris and Teagan Wouters as Lucy with Max Whitty and Jessie Yates as understudies)
I was thrilled that, just like the Broadway show, this production included silly pre-show antics that completely distracted me from writing notes about the day. These included an announcement for the opening night of "Jehovah's Witness the musical", people looking for a hammer, and a cast member cutting through a row of seats asking people for a lift home. But my absolute favorite was when the cast passed a "wire" back through the middle of the audience to power the stage. Since my seat was dead center of my row, I actively participated in holding the wire as it was passed back. Needless to say, I had a huge grin on my face before the show even officially started.
A lot of the jokes in "Peter Pan Goes Wrong" were very similar to those in "The Play That Goes Wrong" so one's opinion of the 2 shows should be pretty similar. I had a grand old time laughing at the madcap antics onstage throughout the evening. It was a joy to watch, and one of the absolute highlights in a stellar trip.
I marveled that it still was not completely dark when I walked to my hotel at around 9:30pm when the show let out. I stopped at the front desk to ask about the best way to get to the train station the next morning. At first they recommended a cab but then they mentioned Uber would be cheaper. I was looking forward to a day of enjoying the scenery while transiting to Franz Josef; it would be a nice break in all the walking I'd been doing. I may have had some even more profound thoughts but I ended that night's notes in mid-sentence so we'll never know what they were.
* * *
When I was just starting to piece together my thoughts and photos for this blog entry, the news broke that 50 people died in a terrorist attack at a Christchurch mosque on March 15, 2019. While this event would have been equally tragic anywhere, my first thought was that it was doubly sad that it happened in a city that was still trying to heal from the 2011 earthquake... one whose temporary cathedral offered such a moving poem for peace. My heart is with the Christchurch community as it tries to recover from another painful event.