Farewell land of the long white cloud

We had spent 82 exiting days in New Zealand, the land of the long white cloud. We climbed mountains and volcanoes, enjoyed beautiful bed & breakfasts and remote camp grounds, swam with dolphins and fed sand flies … most of all we met some terrific people on our travels! Against all odds, our sorry excuse of a rental car carried us over 10.000 km across the whole country until we finally dumped it at the rental station at the airport. And then we were back on foot with our two fully packed backpacks on the way to the check in counter, ready for our next adventure. But there was one last farewell, because Marie and Brian came all the way from their camper holiday in Miranda to send us off at the airport! You’re just the best and we’ll definitely visit you again next time we’re in New Zealand 🙂

Tasman glacier lake

 

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Glowworm caves and the last days in Aotearoa

We started the next morning by slipping into some wet and cold wetsuits and put hard hats on before selecting our floating tyre for the day! When you are climbing into a hole in the ground that’s filled with ice cold water to float through pitch black caverns and stare at small glowing dots on the cave ceiling you’re either very very very drunk and stoned or at the Waitomo Glowworm Caves 🙂

Sadly we have no photos of this underground adventure, because we didn’t want to bring our camera on the trip and the photo CD from the tour guide would have cost a small fortune. But here’s a link for a glimpse of what The Black Labyrinth backwater rafting tour did look like.

Ohakune to AucklandMarokopa FallsAfter defrosting our frozen limbs with a nice hot soup it was time for the very last part of our road trip through New Zealand. That evening we arrived back in Auckland, where our New Zealand holiday began almost three months earlier. We spent the last three days in the land of the long white cloud fairly relaxed, trying to (unsuccessfully) sell the camping equipment we bought in New Zealand, buying snorkel gear and reef shoes for our next destinations and shrinking our luggage back to backpack size … amazing how much stuff you can collect on a three month road trip 🙂

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Hobbiton

On the Alexander family farm in Buckland Road – Peter Jackson found the perfect movie location for the Shire. The film crew of Lord of the Rings built the farmer a nice gravel road into his sheep farm and erected a whole hobbit village out of plywood and styrofoam in the rolling hills of the Waikato country. Due to copyright, most of the movie set was dismantled after filming and only a few, quickly decaying plywood hobbit holes remained at the farm. Nethertheless an increasing number of Lord of the Rings fans knocked on the surprised farmer’s door and asked for a glimpse of the remnants of Hobbiton. Soon he realised that he had a formidable business opportunity at his hands and struck jackpot when Peter Jackson announced to film the Hobbit trilogy. As proud owner of the Shire he granted the film crew permission to film on his land again (I’m sure the charges were no bargain this second time) under the condition that Hobbiton is rebuilt using permanent materials this time. Considering that approximately 1-2 million visitors are willing to pay the $75 entrance fee each year I assume the farmer is keeping his original sheep farm as a mere hobby these days!

When we landed in New Zealand we had not been to keen on visiting a purpose built movie set for $75, because neither Warner Brothers Movie World nor the Universal Pictures studio tour in Hollywood had lived up to our expectations. But the people of Weta workshop did an amazing job creating a life size hobbit village with an incredible attention to every tiny little detail (“See that moss on the fence over there? That fence was only built one week before filming, so it had to be painted to look old and the moss is made out of paint and glue to create the illusion of an old hobbit fence”). Peter Jackson wanted everything to look 100% authentic without a single glitch for critics to complain about (imagine fake plums and leaves glued to apple trees). Nowadays several gardeners are taking care of Hobbiton full time, the veggie garden supplies the Green Dragon Inn and the hills are covered by 60-90% scale hobbit holes. If there would be real rooms behind those colourful doors we would have moved in on the spot and never moved out again!

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In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with thing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

Bag End

Bag End

When we finally stood in front of Bag End it looked … well just like in the movies 🙂 We half expected Bilbo himself to come out of the green door to smoke his pipe on the front porch. And again we were speechless by the attention to detail Peter Jackson and the team from Weta spent on the set: originally there was no tree on top of the hill that became Bag End. So for the Lord of the Rings movies they looked for a real size tree elsewhere in New Zealand, cut it into smaller pieces, transported everything to the movie set and re-assembled the tree on location with hundreds of thousands fake leaves glued to the branches. Of course when they filmed the Hobbit a few years later, the storyline precedes the Lord of the Rings by roughly 50 years in the books, so they needed the same tree to look 50 years younger (not that anybody other than Peter Jackson would have noticed). Because there was no way they could find an identical looking 50 year smaller tree on earth they build a completely new tree out of plaster and plastic with over half a million of fake leaves!!

After passing some more hobbit houses our next stop was the place of Bilbo’s 111th Birthday.

By now we were already quite thirsty and were looking forward to a nice cool South Farthing Ale at the Green Dragon! We could see the Inn on the other side of the lake, so we hijacked a beer cart and quickly drove past the mill and over the bridge 🙂

Who wouldn’t love to have a tavern like THIS around the corner to enjoy a cold pork pie with a nice cold beer after work?

When it was time to head back we just didn’t want to leave this lovely piece of Middle Earth, but the next tourist bus was already waiting …

Farewell Bilbo Baggins from the Shire! See you again next time!

Farewell Bilbo Baggins from the Shire! See you again next time!

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Forgotten World Highway to Mount Doom

Inglewood to Mount DoomAfter leaving Marie and Brian’s farm in Inglewood, we turned east in Stratford towards Taumarunui. This 150km road through the middle of nowhere is also known as Forgotten World Highway, and some of the farms along the way really looked VERY forgotten. About halfway we stopped at the village of Whangamomona, which declared itself an independent republic in 1988 after disagreements with local councils. We guess that the rest of New Zealand never really cared what 170 villagers at the end of the world were doing anyway and that’s why nowadays you can now get a stamp of the Republic of Whangamomona in your passport when you stop for a coffee at the Whangamomona Hotel.

 


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The 'Hobbit Hole'

The ‘Hobbit Hole’

After squeezing through the Hobbit Hole tunnel, we stayed the night in Ohakune near Mordor (formerly known as Tongariro National Park) because it was time to visit another old friend of ours: Mount Doom! At our first visit we didn’t make it to the summit during our Mordor Alpine Crossing due to tough weather. Now this time we came back just for the volcano and it was time to settle our open score 🙂
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The morning views were fantastic and we fairly quickly covered the first 4 km of the Mordor Alpine Crossing to the turn-off towards Mount Doom.

This time the weather was on our side and we slowly but steadily pushed our way up the mountain …

… near the top we stopped for a deep breath of fresh volcano air at some smoking volcano vents …

Mount Doom

… and then we finally reached the red rim of the Mount Doom crater! YES!

 

We didn’t arrive a moment too soon, because just as we were having our lunch at the summit the clouds came rolling in and the temperature dropped by some ten degrees. So we finished our lunch and quickly hurried back down, sliding rather than walking through an amazingly colourful gravel field.

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heather-clad fields all the way to Mount Ruhapehu

heather-clad fields all the way to Mount Ruhapehu

All in all the whole hike still took us about six hours till we were back at our car. But this time we were not nearly as exhausted as we were after the Mordor Alpine Crossing two months earlier and we had a proper bed waiting for us instead of a freezing cold tent 🙂

Mount Doom: tick!

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Friends in Taranaki country

Masterton to TaranakiIn Aitutaki we had met Marie and Brian, a wonderful couple from New Zealand, during a snorkelling trip. When we told them that we would be travelling to New Zealand soon, they invited us to visit them at their place in Taranaki and now our road trip finally brought us to the west coast of North Island. In fact we were quite lucky with our timing, because when we called them to see if they would be home, they told us that they would be leaving for a camping trip on their own only a coupleRoad to Taranaki of days later.

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SunsetSo after a nice breakfast in Cookie’s bakery and my second travel haircut ( 🙂 ) we drove almost seven hours straight from Masterton to Inglewood and finally arrived at “Gillet Manor” at sunset.

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Our guest roomMarie and Brian were already waiting for us and took us in with a nice dinner snack and a glass (or two) of Dubliner Irish Whiskey Liqueur before showing us to our room for the next couple of days.

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The next morning started with a nice breakfast and a tour around their amazing house on a hill of their old dairy farm, that is now managed by one of their four sons. And then Marie and Brian took us out on an amazing Caddilac sightseeing trip to New Plymouth in their burgundy Caddilac La Salle oldtimer! Now THAT is the kind of car you should do a road trip through New Zealand in 🙂 It was amazing and we had a wonderful time at Lake Mangamahoe and New Plymouth with the two!

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When we told Marie and Brian that we were planning to move to a Motel or Hostel the next day to meet with Cristian, Cookie and Mini-Cookie for a hiking trip to Mount Taranaki, they wouldn’t hear anything about it and instead invited the three of them to their house as well. We were just speechless about so much hospitality and will never forget how welcome you had made us feel at your lovely home !!!

After we got a million useful hiking tips from Brian’s brothers in law that night (his five sisters and their husbands came over for dinner), Cristian and I got up at 6am the next morning and prepared to tackle Mount Taranaki. This perfectly shaped volcano, also called Mount Egmont or simply “the mountain” by locals, features in some movies as Mount Fuji in Japan, because they look very much alike and filming in New Zealand is a lot cheaper :-). It looked amazing in the morning sun with it’s white cloud beanie as we began our ascend from the North Egmont visitor centre. Up until Tahurangi Translator Tower and Tahurangi Lodge it was a steep but nice walk, but unfortunately the mountain never took off his cloud cap during our hike and the wind was getting worse the further up we got.

Mount Taranaki with cloud beanie

Mount Taranaki with cloud beanie

About halfway up the summit climb we were trudging through snow covered gravel slopes and eventually the track led us to ice covered rock steps. I desperately wished I had brought gloves for our summer trip to New Zealand and we did certainly not bring the right equipment for THAT kind of terrain. So we followed hiking tip #1 to return when the track does not feel safe any more and turned around … and as always in this country there were a couple of crazy Germans and French who passed us and attempted the summit climb that day anyway.

In the meantime our girls enjoyed a much easier view of ‘the mountain’ from the distance doing a trip across the Gillet’s farm:

BBQCristian and I were just glad we made it safely down the mountain and were looking forward to a delicious BBQ dinner at “Gillet Manor” while Brian and Marie were at a birthday party for one of their granddaughters. When they came back we finished the exiting day with a nice glass of whiskey liqueur as nightcap.

The next day we sadly had to continue our trip to Auckland, although we much rather wanted to stay longer with our amazing hosts. So we delayed our departure until noon and I decided to get up early again and help Brian and some family friends renew the weatherboards at their old farmhouse. It was really interesting to get a glimpse of how the wood frame houses are build in New Zealand (and how the farmers sometimes make do with the material they have on hand). In the end we just couldn’t postpone our trip any longer and had to say goodbye to Marie and Brian. You were soooo lovely to us and we hope to visit you again next time we come to New Zealand!

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Holdsworth – Waiohine Gorge walk

Waiohine Gorge routeThis trip is really trying hard to turn us into early birds and on our last day in Wellington we left the hotel at 7:00 am. The plan was for me to pick up Cristian for a day-hike in the Wairarapa region just north of Wellington. Bea preferred to spend the day with Cookie and Mini-Cookie in Wellington.

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Ever since we had spent a night at the Waiohine Gorge campground nearly two months ago I was so fascinated by the landscape that I always wanted to come back for some hiking. After a couple of hours of brooding over the map I had to admit that the 2-3 day ‘Mt Holdsworth-Jumbo Circuit’ with its alpine route section was maybe a bit too ambitious for me and chose a 14 km day-section of the ‘Holdsworth-Kaitoke Track’ from Holdsworth Lodge to Waiohine Gorge instead. The girls would pick us up around 5pm from the Waoihine Gorge campground.

The weather was fantastic for hiking and the track was just what I was always looking for: a narrow footpath overgrown with roots … sometimes washed away or completely lost in a riverbed or in the grass. You really can’t get any closer to nature than that and after we left the first section of the track – the one that led up to Mount Holdsworth and Jumbo 😦 – we didn’t meet another soul for the rest of the day.

A good hour later than expected we finally reached our destination in Waiohine Gorge, where the girls had just arrived five minutes before us. Together we drove another hour to the start of our track to collect the other car, before Cookie and Cristian returned back to Wellington and we dropped into the first motel we saw in Masterton and were pleasantly surprised by a very stylish hotel for the night.

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Wellington and more Lord of the Rings

It was a nice day when we arrived in Wellington and we decided to drive straight to the Weta Caves for some more Lord of the Rings sightseeing. What is Weta? A Giant Weta is a large insect similar to a grasshopper or cricket that can grow up to 10 cm excluding their legs and antennae. The Weta Cave or Weta Workshop on the other hand is a special effects and prop company based in Wellington’s suburb Miramar, producing effects for television and film. They consider the Weta “a very cool, prickly little monster, unique to New Zealand” 🙂 And to make things even more confusing the Weta Workshop is located in Weka Street … named after the chicken sized bird we encountered on so many camp grounds in the South Island. But most importantly these are the guys and girls who created all the incredible outfits, weapons, models, costumes and gimmicks for the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Hobbit trilogy. We spontaneously joined a tour through the workshop and our guide Matthew Hopkins turned it into one of the funniest and most entertaining tours we’ve ever been to 🙂

“I’ll use this samurai sword to point at stuff during the tour, but also to whack people on the hand when they try to touch things! And if zombies invade the workshop – you DO know that zombies exist and will definitely rise some day – I’ll be the only one who is prepared and armed here!”

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From the Weta cave we took a VERY small and windy road up to Mount Victoria (and almost lost our front bumper to an oncoming bus who couldn’t care less about who else is on the road). Up there it was quite impressive to watch the rain clouds race towards the city and turn a sunny blue afternoon sky into pitch black rain clouds!

Mount VictoriaWoah, we still had not found the “get off the road” filming location where the four hobbits were hiding from the black rider in the first LotR movie! So we rushed back down Mount Victoria and frantically looked for the right spot before the clouds reached Mount Victoria. When we finally found the unobtrusive little signpost somewhere along the road it already started to rain and we were drenched by the time we were back at the car! But it didn’t matter, because we had found the right spot 🙂

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The next morning it was back to bright blue sky and sunshine when we walked into the city for breakfast and passed the New Zealand parliament with its iconic “Beehive” building.

In the evening Cookie (alias Birgit, who at last, after over 15 years of knowing her, got a nickname due to her last name being similar to a very famous German cookie brand), Cristian, Krümel aka Mini-Cookie (Sophia) and us were invited by Maurizio, their former boss, to a nice barbecue in the Hutt valley for our last evening in Wellington. But Bea had only eyes (and the camera) for Sophia that evening:

Cookie

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Bye bye South Island

We did spend forty fantastic days in New Zealand’s South Island. We’ve seen glaciers, fjords and iridescent blue lakes, dolphins, keas, kiwis, penguins, seals, millions of sheep and billions of sandflies. We even postponed our ferry to Wellington and our outbound flight from Auckland to stay longer! But now it was time to say goodbye and board our return ferry to Wellington (this time without any seasick passengers) and a small pod of dolphins and a lonely albatross were wishing us farewell as we sailed through Queen Charlotte sound.

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Christchurch and a long road trip back to the ferry

Mount Cook to PictonThree days left on the South Island and still a long way to the ferry in Picton. So we filled up the car in Twizel and got ready to put some miles on our tires. On the way back to the east coast we stopped in Pleasant Point and visited a family that we had met on the Able Tasman Track for coffee and a chat.

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From there we went to Banks Peninsula right off the coast of Christchurch. After an uneventful night at the picturesque Halfmoon Cottage we went for an even less eventful morning stroll in Akaroa (which is supposed to be a French heritage village – good thing this was written in the Lonely Planet because it sure didn’t feel like it in reality). Neither Akaroa nor the Banks Peninsula in itself were overly interesting on a cloudy day (particularly not when you’re just coming from Mount Cook) and we quickly turned towards Christchurch.

Christchurch

Our visit to Christchurch did feel a bit surreal! In February 2011 a magnitude 6.3 earthquake and several aftershocks struck Christchurch, severely damaging New Zealand’s second largest city that had already been shaken by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake five months earlier. 185 people lost their life in that devastating event, many CBD buildings collapsed or were damaged beyond repair and whole suburbs turned uninhabitable. What happened since then was an unprecedented construction boom turning today’s Christchurch into a mix of new constructions, fenced of ruins and deserted neighbourhoods marked for final demolition. The ruin of the Christchurch Cathedral is the most prominent reminder of the catastrophe while the Re:START container shopping centre demonstrates the strong determination of the people to rebuilt ‘their’ Christchurch. Unfortunately we did not have more time to explore the city and continued our drive north after a short lunch break and a depressing tour through one of the uninhabited neighbourhoods that will be ultimately turned into a park after all the damaged buildings are demolished.

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We finished our day in Kaikoura in a pretty appalling backpacker lodge called Fishtank Hostel, where the toilet flush of the communal bathrooms sounded as if it was drilled straight through our room. Needless to say that this didn’t particularly help us to enjoy Kaikoura and since we already had our fair share of dolphin sightings and dolphin swimming in the Catlins we left early the next morning for our last day on the South Island.

Just north of Kaikoura we suddenly spotted a pod of Dusky Dolphins in the ocean and Bea was snapping happily away with her camera 🙂

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On the way through South Marlborough we were intrigued by the pink ponds next to the road and the bright white mounds in the distance and soon found ourselves at the gates of Dominion Salt Ltd in Lake Grassmere. Unfortunately there were no public tours or salt sales available there.

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Picton presented us with a perfectly sunny last afternoon on the South Island and we enjoyed a beautiful dinner at the harbour front with our first ever taste of Abalone … sooooo tasty 🙂

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Twizel – new capital of Gondor

Flag of RohanFor today we had booked a Lord of the Rings location tour with One Ring Tours in Twizel, the modern day capital of Gondor, which is significantly less impressive than the white city of Minas Tirith. Well in reality Twizel was built as a working camp for the Waitaki hydro power scheme in the sixties and was due to be abandoned in the eighties when the contraction project was completed. But people stayed and a great number of them became part of the Lord of the Rings film crew, either as cooks, drivers or carpenters or extras playing soldiers, riders or orks! To fill the great battle scenes on the Pelennor fields of Gondor with enough ‘armies’ Peter Jackson even recruited a NZ army battalion, teenagers from summer camps and numerous work-and-travel tourists who thought playing orks is more fun than plucking apples or grapes 😉

Our tour guide and driver took us right into the heart of Gondor, showing us movie locations and giving us a great insight as to what the area had looked like during filming with a crew of sometimes more than a thousand people and hundreds of horses! And she also explained a lot of the filming tricks that were used in the movies to make the landscape look the way it did in the film: think a lot of copy and paste to multiply a mere hundred riders into an army of thousands, imagine a poor intern manually photoshopping power lines out of each and every single shot of the movie, take a grassy hill and ‘cloak’ it in the rocky appearance of a mountain hundreds of kilometres away and and and ….

At the end of the tour there was even time to play around with Lord of the Rings replica costumes and swords:

Nerdy? Definitely! But really great fun 🙂

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