Thursday, October 22, 2015

Taupo and Wellington, New Zealand

On our way down to Taupo from Rotorura on September 30, we stopped over at a large obstacle course called Rock 'n Ropes. It was a rope course with 6 increasingly difficult feats. Marc bravely volunteered to go first for each (whew).

1. Tight rope line with one safety rope on the side (scoot along sideways)
2. Tight rope line with two safety ropes on either side (walking forwards and backwards)
3. A shaky suspension bridge (no holds)
4. A long and narrow log (no holds)
5. Jump from the top of a tall pole to grab a trapeze
6. Giant swing where you jump from a tower

My strategy was not to look down and to try to do things as fast as possible, so that I wouldn't freak out, chicken out, pass out, or fall off :)

Me on rope course #1
Marc on #3.
Marc on #4.
Marc on #5, probably the scariest! You stand on top of that pole and jump for the trapeze on the right.

We then stopped over to see Huka Falls, an extremely aqua blue falls that feeds in from Lake Taupo. 

But the real reason we were in Taupo was to tramp the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. This is an all-day 19.4 km or 12.1 miles hike that take 6-9 hours to complete. It goes from 1100 meters or 3600 feet elevation up to a peak of 1886 meters or 6188 feet elevation and down the other side of the mountain. The terrain is volcanic with the last eruption taking place in 2012. At this time of the year —early spring— there was still a lot of snow on the peaks. We woke up very early at 4:15am, geared up with all our warmest clothes, and rented gloves, hiking boots, and snow crampons. We parked our car at the end of the hike (Ketetahi car park), and took a shuttle to go to the start of the hike (Mangatepopo car park) at around 7am. The car park was basically empty, and we only saw 3 or 4 hikers on the way up. The weather forecast predicted a low cloud cover and some wind, but the clouds were even lower than expected, so it was foggy most of the time execpt at the very beginning of the hike.

Walking into the mist.

The hike is very well marked, and the beginning of it even has nice winding boardwalks for easy walking. At the top of the Devil's Staircase (oof) is South Crater, which was completely covered in snow and wind became stronger. As we tramped through the snow, we noticed that it would be quite easy to get lost because it was impossible to see the next sign post due to fog without venturing out into the all-white cloud. Spinning around, it felt like being in a large silent all-white room.

Crampons were essential for walking on the snow and ice.

We got to the base of the Red Crater (the highest peak of the hike) and the wind was now blowing even harder. Several times I was pushed over into the snowbank. A guide from another group chased us down and told us it was too dangerous to go any further, since winds were estimated to be 100 km/h or 60 mph at the peak. I felt mountain-delirious and really wanted to just get to the top, but Marc wisely talked me out of the idea. We ate our packed lunches and retraced our steps all the way back down the mountain. By this time, the fog had lifted a bit, and we were able to see the beautiful alpine scenery, which I only half enjoyed, feeling grumpy for not having crossed over, haha. 

The next day, we took the 5-6 hour drive down to Wellington, stopping over in Paraparaumu, a seaside village for a short walk on the beach.

In Wellington, we met up with my high school friend Christie's older sister, Julie and her husband Paul. It was great to catch up and get insight into the city from locals. We visited Zealandia, a cool bird sanctuary in the middle of the city. 

Great to see Julie and meet Paul!

New Zealand is originally predominately populated by birds, with only a small fruit bat mammal and some smaller lizard and frog species. They had one set of birds called the Takahē that were thought to be extinct, but were re-discovered, and are now in a breeding program. The two who were in the park were a paired couple and were 20 years old! They looked like dinosaur birds. 

They also had some interesting reptiles called Tuataras, which don’t start breeding until 14-20 years of age and can live up to 100 years old.

Marc loves viewpoints, so we went up to Mount Victoria (which is probably the third peak or mountain named "Victoria" on this trip so far).

Finally, we left Wellington on October 4 by taking the ferry (with our rental car) to the South Island, which is a 70 km / 43 miles trip taking about 3 or 4 hours.

Next up, Abel Tasman hike...

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Hobbiton & Rotorua, New Zealand

After leaving Waitomo on September 27, being a big fan of the Lord of the Rings, Lauren dragged me to the Hobbiton village movie set (satellite view) where we saw Bilbo's home (Bag Eng), Sam's home, the Green Dragon inn, and the pond. The guide had lots of trivia, here is what I remember:
  • Tourists sometimes think the village is real and the hobbit holes are historical New Zealander dwellings, so the guide had to explicitly state that everything is built just for a movie.
  • Some hobbit holes are built at 90% scale, others at 40% scale; to make you look like either a hobbit or wizard, respectively, when standing in front of them.
  • The oak tree above Bag End, as seen in The Hobbit film series, is likely the most expensive movie prop ever built. It is built from metal frame segments, covered in silicone, and made to look exactly like the same (real) tree seen in The Lord of the Rings (except a bit smaller because The Hobbit story takes place 60 years before The Lord of The Rings). For the leaves, they manufactured and imported 20,000 (or 200,000?) from Taiwan, each hand-painted, and hand-glued to the tree. But the paint on the leaves faded under the sun, so Peter Jackson, a detailed man, hired a woman to spend 15 hours per day re-painting each and every leaf in a slightly darker shade of green.
  • Since the village faces east, they filmed a sunrise and played it in reverse to simulate a sunset in a scene where Bilbo and Gandalf make smoke rings in "The Fellowship of the Ring". However, birds flying in the distance were accidentally included in the shot and are seen flying backwards. (Note: I checked a copy of the movie that I personally encoded from my Blu-ray disc to H.264/720p/1.5Mbps but I could not see the birds —maybe they are visible on the Blu-ray original.)
  • In the party scene where Bilbo makes a birthday speech, a lot of the actors dancing are kids. In order to keep them full of energy until 1 am, they gave them unlimited amounts of sugary drinks.
The pathway that Gandalf and Frodo take when Galdalf arrives in a cart in LOTR 1. 
Hobbit-sized Lauren.
Wizard-sized Marc.
The Shire!
Bag End.
The aforementioned fake oak tree.
Outside the Green Dragon pub.
Here is a shot comparing a scene from The Hobbit 1 with our picture at almost the same location in front of Bilbo's home —I was impressed by how much of the movie shows exactly how the set looks and how little CGI was used:

Scene from The Hobbit 1, at 9'48". 
Our comparison shot, taken about 10 m / 30 ft in front of where the camera was for the movie.
Later in that same day we drove to Rotorua, where we stayed 3 nights (September 27-30).

We visited the Tamaki Māori Village, where we learned about the culture, lifestyle, and customs of the Māori people of New Zealand. We even tried out doing some dancing (Lauren) and war training games (Marc). They performed the Haka, demonstrated the use of weapons, and cooked chicken, lamb, and potatoes in a hāngi (for us to eat), which is a traditional Māori method of cooking where food and heated rocks are buried in a pit oven. We did not know it at the time, but that village is actually not an original village site, just a model of a traditional village. It was okay, but mostly felt like a show/performance, to be honest.

Pit oven.
The women were fierce.
Rotorua is known for its geothermal activity. In fact the biggest lake in the region, Lake Rotorua, was formed from the crater of a large volcano. The geothermal activity is most impressive in the Whakarewarewa Thermal Village, which we visited. This is the site of a Māori village within the city that fully takes advantage of the geothermal heat for cooking, bathing, heating houses, etc. There are geysers, mud pools, hot springs, etc.

It really looks like the houses are on fire, but it is all steam.
The only way to own a house in this village is to inherit it, or marry into a family of the community.
Community thermal baths.
Geysers in the background.
A few minutes away from Rotorua is the Wingspan National Bird of Prey Center, where they house many rehabilitated birds.

Very well maintained facilities.
Falcon is not amused.
They have a few different species of birds, but mostly New Zealand falcons. We attended a falconry show: one of them would be released in the open air, the falconer would swing the lure, the falcon would fly in circles over him and dive to attempt to catch the lure which had little bits of food attached to it.

They are very food motivated.
Interestingly, we were told that a professional photographer came to their center to take pictures of one of their New Zealand falcon specimens as a model for designing a new issue of the NZ$20 banknote scheduled to be released in April 2016. After the show, I went and asked which falcon was photographed. I was told it was a female named Shaheena Tetsuko. So we went to the cage where she was kept to admired her. How cool is that to have the chance to see in person the animal that will be printed on millions of banknotes? On top of that, Shaheena has an interesting backstory, see below.

Shaheena Tetsuko.
Shaheena Tetsuko on the new NZ$20 bill.
Shaheena's parents, Tarawera and Kaitiaki, had killed her older sibling, so while still inside the egg "Sha" was removed from her parents to eliminate the risk of her also being killed. After being transferred to an incubator she hatched successfully and was hand-reared by the Wingspan team. Having now imprinted on people, Shaheena cannot be released into the wild and is a wonderful advocacy bird. Shaheena is the Arabic word for "female falcon" and Tetsuko means "lady of steel" in Japanese.
On the last day in Rotorua we went for a short walk in the Redwoods - Whakarewarewa Forest.

The sulfur water reminded Lauren of the Dead Marshes of LOTR. Do not follow the lights!
This was followed by having a pizza on the shore of Lake Rotorua where we saw black swans.

And since we stumbled upon a very small fair with an inflatable obstacle course, we concluded the day with 2 races through it between Lauren and I. She was more agile and won both times :)

The challenge.

Next stop: Taupo!