New Zealand part one: Tuesday 26th November – Tuesday 3rd December

During the time we’ve been travelling, we’ve taken to arriving at airports earlier and earlier. Partly this is to make Jay’s flying anxiety easier to deal with, but also because airports are places where you can generally get free wifi and somewhere comfortable to nurse a coffee, so we could get some planning done for wherever we’re heading to next. Generally it’s not unusual for us to turn up for an evening flight by lunchtime. Our flight from Fiji to New Zealand was at 8am, which would have meant a very early start for most people, but we decided to go a step further and just go to the airport the night before and sit in the waiting area all night. We’ve grown accustomed to spending the occasional night on a bus or train, or just in really uncomfortable, noisy dorms, so we felt able to handle having a night with no sleep.

We were hoping that we could check our bags in early and get through security, since there are generally more comfy places to hang out when you get airside. In Hong Kong we had checked our bags at 1pm for our 9pm flight so hoped to do the same in Fiji. Unfortunately Nadi International Airport is really tiny, and they obviously weren’t equipped to take luggage before the allotted check in time, so we had to stay in the landside lounge overnight.

We did some blogging, and booked some long-distance travel for New Zealand, then settled on the uncomfortable benches to watch TV, using our big backpacks as a footrest. At 5am, after an hour or two of dozing, we were finally allowed to check in and eagerly made our way through security. Jay slept for half an hour on the comfier sofas, and then blearily we headed to the gate – and Jay’s first sober flight in years! He made it through with minimal panic, hopefully a sign that future journeys will be easier too.

We arrived in to Auckland and began the epic process of going through New Zealand immigration. The regulations are incredibly strict, as the Island nation continues to struggle to protect local flora and fauna from introduced pests. We had to declare that we had hiking shoes, walking poles and a tent, and have them inspected. Our shoes and poles passed through as we’d cleaned all the foreign mud off them, but the tent had to be taken to biosecurity for a full inspection. Only sand was discovered (an obvious remnant from our last night in Hong Kong at the free beach campsite) so we were allowed to keep the tent and avoided expensive decontamination treatment.

Next was customs, and another country with complicated, strict rules about importing medicine that had caused Jay huge headaches before we left the UK. In this instance, Jay had to obtain a Medicine Import License, requiring letters from his GP and a ton of admin. And did they ask to see it at customs? Nope. But you can bet they would have if we didn’t have it!

Our first week in New Zealand was one long treat, starting with being picked up from the airport. No faffing with trying to work out local transport, find an ATM or somewhere to buy a SIM card; we simply piled into the back of our friends Sonja and Michelle’s car and relaxed for the journey to their house. All week we were fully pampered: hot baths, vegan magnums, wine and delicious local cider, and more food than we’ve seen since we left the UK. The intermittent fasting was quickly forgotten. We were thoroughly looked after and were able to fully relax during the week we were there.

Another benefit of staying with friends was kindly being given access to their car! It was great having the freedom to go wherever we wanted, without having to negotiate foreign public transport. Much as we both believe in the importance of good public transport, it is a lot of effort constantly learning new systems! Our first trip out was a bit scary since neither of us has driven a car in six months, but we soon remembered what to do, and it helps that they drive on the left in NZ.

We really enjoyed just taking ourselves to the supermarket, and it was a delight to find so many vegan products on the shelves, after so many months of struggling to find decent food.

Our first big day trip was to Rotorua, a town located in the massive bowl of an active volcano, famous for its thermally heated springs. And also the pervasive smell of sulphur. We knew we were approaching the town when the smell of rotten eggs began drifting into the car and we noticed steam rising from the drains.

The town has several springs, both acidic and alkaline (with associated supposed health benefits) and also bubbling mud pools and geysers. Thanks to a handy viewing point/clearing in the undergrowth next to an abandoned hotel, we managed to get a bit of a glimpse of the famous geyser from outside the expensive tourist attraction.

Near to Rotorua is a forest planted with Californian Redwoods where we enjoyed a lovely walk and picnic. The flora was utterly bizarre to us: towering Redwoods, punctuated with enormous tree ferns and countless alien-looking plants. The woodland felt prehistoric and we half expected to bump into some dinosaurs. We saw our first Fan Tail, a quintessential NZ bird, and heard dozens of other birds that we couldn’t identify.

There were several sulphurous streams running through the woods which were an incredible aquamarine colour: the water was crystal clear but mineral deposits on the plants in the water gave it a vibrant hue.

Finally on our way back we headed to Kerosene Creek. Down a winding track we came to a small parking area and a gap in the bushes. From there we followed a narrow footpath down through the strange undergrowth alongside a stream which looked for all the world like any other stream flowing down the side of a hill in the Lake District. However, this stream, as we soon found out, was 40+ degrees C, heated by the geothermal activity in the region. We joined the other tourists and families sitting, swimming and drifting along in the gentle but very hot current.

A small waterfall created a turbulent deep pool underneath; the gravel at the riverbed was constantly churned up, so that if you stood at the bottom of the cascade you could feel yourself sinking into the ground below. It was utterly surreal being in a river in the woods and also roasting hot. An unfortunate side effect is that, even two weeks and several washes later, our swimwear still stinks of sulphur.

The next day was HOBBITON! This was definitely an excursion that was well outside our usual budget, but thanks to an early christmas present from the McNeils, we were able to treat ourselves. We took the advice of blogs we read and booked the first tour of the day, which is the only time you can get any photos without other tourists in. The whole place is a well-oiled moneymaking machine: each day 120 tour groups of around 40 people are piled into coaches, leaving every 5 minutes to head to the set where they are guided around with pinpoint timing to minimise any delays caused by overcrowding. We were very lucky to be in the first group and so our outward tour was dictated by our group and our excellent tour guide. On the way back we immediately encountered another group and subsequently had to give way to several more before we made it back to the coach. It would have been a very different experience if we’d had to spend our whole tour waiting like that.

It was easy to see even on the drive over why this location was chosen for the adaptation of Lord of the Rings. The rolling hills are utterly evocative of the Shire. The site was chosen largely for the “party tree”: a 120-year old Radiatus Pine (estimated at 25m tall by a particularly nerdy engineer in our tour group), which stood apart from other trees, by a lake and field which could be used for Bilbo’s party.

We were both immediately struck by the beautiful gardens and orchards of Hobbiton: a huge team of gardeners work from very early in the morning to cultivate the flowers and plants before the tours start (and they get to keep the veg that they grow!). The whole place feels like an archetypal quaint English village – the village that everyone pictures when they think about Olde England, but which has never really existed. The rolling meadows and quaint houses are so beautiful: a picturesque ideal of what people wish England could have been.

The tour took us around most of the hobbit-holes, built at different scales – 60% and 90% – depending on whether a hobbit or human was being filmed. We found out that we both qualify as hobbits, as we don’t have to duck to get inside the door.

After visiting Bag End and the party field, the tour ended up at the Green Dragon pub, where we were treated to a complimentary beverage.

Despite it being barely 10am, we both opted for booze: stout and cider felt appropriate. We sat under a willow tree looking out over the lake and reflecting on the manufactured perfection of the environment. We have both been to many “country pubs” which try to capture the atmosphere of a traditional English village pub, and invariably end up feeling generic and sterile. Somehow the fake Green Dragon pub manages where so many real pubs fail! Jay described an aching nostalgia for childhood memories of the village pubs in rural Essex, which are now all soulless gastropubs.

Over the weekend Sonja and Michelle took us to some local attractions. We started by visiting Otorohanga Kiwi house and native bird park. On the drive there we were both struck by the huge trees dotted around the surrounding farmland: oaks, poplars and willows. In the UK, these trees have all been removed from farms to maximise profitable land, or cut down by developers. We also noticed wildflower meadows: uncommercialised land humming with wildlife, that again has sadly been removed from UK countryside.

At Otorohanga we saw two Kiwi! They are nocturnal so the Kiwi House is kept in a reverse diurnal cycle, to enable visitors to see them hilariously foraging in the undergrowth. Unfortunately it was too dark for us to take any photos, but here are a couple from the sanctuary’s website:

They are striking birds for several reasons: 1) they are MASSIVE! 2) they are called NZ’s honorary mammal because their feathers look like fur. 3) they have bone marrow (unlike other birds who have hollow bones to keep them light enough to fly) to strengthen their legs to support their MASSIVE bodies as they hop around everywhere. 4) they have WHISKERS! They use them like a cat for proprioception. 5) their nostrils are at the end of their beaks: the official length of a bird’s beak is the distance from its nostrils to the tip so they technically have the shortest beak of all birds. We hope you now love Kiwi as much as we do.

After the kiwi house we visited Hamilton botanic gardens, which were stunning.

The next day we went for an utterly awesome brunch at Punnet: think high-end garden centre with fancy cafe. After a week of overeating, we weren’t sure we’d manage to get through their “vegan feast” but somehow we both prevailed! That evening we had a great time attending Sonja and Michelle’s choir’s christmas concert.

We spent the last couple of days preparing for our next adventure: heading to the South Island by coach and ferry. We did lots of cooking and prepping trail mix, washed all our clothes (again) and bought some camping equipment. With everything ready, Sonja took us to the bus station for our night bus and we said our farewells.

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