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Published: March 9th 2011
Exploring New Zealand, December 2010
Having recently returned to the States from working in China for a year, I knew I would have only a couple of months to get my system back into the Western Hemispere, before not only returning to the Eastern but also visiting a new one, the Southern. My family had long been planning an epic adventure for the holiday season: a trip to New Zealand, where we have friends and where Mom fell in love on her first visit with the unique biodiversity of this island nation.
We left "sunny" Florida, which was actually turning quite cold, flying and transiting for 27 hours, and arrived at 7:30 in the morning on a Saturday in Auckland. Once through customs and "biosecurity" (intense, I might add), and reunited with ecstatic friends, we stepped out into a sun that was bright, warm, and strange. The air here is unlike any air I have ever felt before, clean and velvety on the skin. The cardinal directions seem confused by the angle of the sun, and I felt for the first time, having travelled this far, that I was on the other side of the planet. Or even
Mom with Kiwi friend
on a different planet. From the moment I saw the Norfolk pines (though not native plants, still new to my eyes), palms, puhutakawas and fern trees, all jumbled and riotous under a seemingly new sun, I was enchanted.
My family, friends and I stayed in a beautiful B&B outside of Auckland, with a full garden, chickens, and glorious grounds situated on a high hill overlooking almost English-looking countryside. The grounds of our home-base were a delight. I spent the first day exploring the woods, glorying in the newness of birds never before heard in the flesh; palms and fern trees; lilies in a hidden dell raising their brilliant white faces to the sun.
Our second full day in the Southern Hemisphere, Kiwi friends took us on a boat ride out from the Auckland harbor. The skyline of downtown fell away as we passed headlands under a brilliant clear sky; the water was a sublime shade of turquoise. We anchored near an island with white sand beaches and scarps of tawny rock covered in brush; I spent the better part of thirty minutes sketching the shapes of the Norfolks clinging to the cliffs. I also swam a bit, searching
for a friend's lost eyewear in water that was very clear, but so cold that I could not stay on the bottom for long enough to find anything.
Lunch was sandwiches and some mini-quiches, crisps, and strawberries dipped in chocolate. I tried some Vegemite on my veggie sandwich. The boys in the group had paddled the kayak into shore and were late getting back to eat. In their haste to return, they sat three to the one-man boat and splashed spectacularly as they capsized just as they came even with the yacht. The male antics continued as two of the boys sat in the raft and were pulled all the way into port: good fun watching them cling and bounce in the wake.
Dinner was at the Skytower downtown, which features a revolving restaurant with fantastic views of the whole city. It is not for those who get dizzy with heights or motion. It took me 30 minutes before I began to feel easy. Dinner was small but exceptional, a feast of honor for the Americans.
Next day I rested, finding myself extraordinarily jetlagged and irritable. My father, siblings and their families headed off to () beach,
a black sand beach in the area; my mother had the same idea as me and rested. Afternoon toddies were had by all, including our Kiwi friends who stepped in to "say hi." Our California friends staying with us had brought, not one, but two
bottles of Cork gin that they had bought in Ireland the year before. Taken with a slice of orange and some good tonic water, it was delicious.
So far we had had the run of the B&B. We rented it out, with the owner letting us handle our own meals as she stayed with a friend elsewhere in the neighborhood. We suspected that had this elegant, soft-spoken Japanese woman seen us in our afternoon raptures of smart quipping and whooping laughter, fueled by beer, gin and everything in between, she might have been frightened, or at least thought we were totally nuts.
My first excursion out of Albany came with a roadtrip to the Waitomo Caves area, and then Rotarua that night for a visit to Waiotapu Thermal Park the next day. We went to Waitomo for the famous glow worms. My sister, her husband and our firend Bill opted for blackwater rafting, while my brother took his family to visit the massive Cathedral Cavern and then a boat ride on the underground river, a pleasant way to view the glow worms with small kids. My niece, just five, apparently watched silently in the dark, rapt by the vision of blue little stars above her on the cavernous black ceiling.
Our way of viewing the creatures was a bit more...challenging. I had a twisted ankle from the weakness caused an old injury: stepping on a rock right before the adventure was enough to cause swelling and yet more weakness. Thus, I was a bit frightened as I slid into the hole in the ground to the rushing water below, but I began to feel more at ease when the guides realized I was hurt and struggling, and so kept an eye on me.
The cave we entered was called "Ruakuri," meaning two dogs
in Maori. The entrance we took is rather plain looking, just a hole in the ground, but as one goes deeper one must jump short waterfalls and clamber over rocks in a roaring stream. In calmer, deeper portions of the river, we took the inner tubes we had been supplied with and rafted on the current. It was at these moments that we could turn off the headlamps on our helmets and look up at the cave ceiling....to see galaxies of tiny blue stars above us and, as our eyes adjusted to the light, shedding a faint light on the cave walls and glittering black water.
The life cycle of a glow worm is most curious. One of our guides, as we sat in a smallish "hallway" with a low roof where we could examine the critters closely, pointed out the sticky tendrils hanging down from one end of the matchstick-length glow worms. These tendrils are suspended just below the glowing part - which is, in fact, the fecal matter of the worm. The light attracts mosquitoes and other flying insects, which are caught in the sticky tendril and consumed by the worm.
Perhaps stranger is that the "glow worm" isn't a worm at all: it is the maggot (larval stage) of a largish fly. The first maggot to hatch out eats its unborn siblings, then sets to work digesting, defecating, glowing and eating more. After metamorphosis, the glow worm is a fly with three days to live - but no eating parts. Thus, their mission is to find a mate, fertilize eggs, lay eggs, and then die of starvation. The eggs hatch out after months underground, and the cycle begins again.
Our guide, Manny (a stout, attractive Maori man with a humorous approach to things) summarized it for us at the end of his natural history lesson, thus: "Glow worms are canibalistic maggots with glowing shit who spend months underground, starve for three days and shag themselves to death."
The caving experience was truly spectacular: a taste of the wonders that were yet to come. More about New Zealand's North Island later. For now, signing off (from the Tower City)-
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