Hobbits, Volcanoes, and Driving on the Wrong Side of the Road

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

For the past three nights we’ve been at a small farm called “102 in the Grove” or “Kynjarmin.” Both labels are on the signs. I’m not sure which actually refers to where we’re staying (although Christin might). It’s a beautiful place, tucked in the rolling hills between Matamata and Tirau in the kind of north-central part of the North Island of New Zealand. Our residence looks straight into a large corn field (“maize,” they call it) and up to some pastures with a roaming mix of sheep and cattle. The whole area is lush and green — fairly idyllic.

We left Auckland on Saturday by car. With me driving. Which meant I had to quickly get a hang of driving on the “wrong” side of the road. And, for that matter, in the “wrong” side of the car. After a few days, now, I’ve pretty much got the hang of it. But that first day. Wow. It really shocked my sense of orientation for the first hour or so. Driving on the left-hand side of the road at first seems profoundly wrong. I had to force my brain to shut up and just do it the first few times. And my first big left turn I did accidentally turn around the cars stopped in the center lane of the cross street as if I were in the states and turning into the right lane. Christin shrieked. I quickly corrected and aborted the turn. No harm done except I clipped the side mirror of a parked car (no damage). Other than that snafu, we’ve been doing pretty well with it.

And driving in New Zealand is complex. There are very few highways of the sort we’re used to in the States around here — it’s mostly two-lane highways that wind around over and through the hills and mountains of the area. They’re beautiful — every single spot around here has a nice view of some sort or other — but they can be a challenge to navigate. Especially with our limited mapping options (we have no mobile phone data, so we’re limited to printed maps and whatever map data I can cache on my phone before we leave — just like the original Maori people used hundreds of years ago when they first settled this area). But all-in-all it’s been fun driving around.

On our drive from Auckland to the farm, here, we took a bit of a scenic route out of the city and stopped at a little grove of food tents on the side of the road to pick up snacks and supplies. And coffee. And then we hopped on the highway through Hamilton, where we again stopped off. But Hamilton was a bit of a surprise. So, the entire country otherwise has been completely charming. Everything’s kind of like a cute and laid-back mix of English and California cultures. (I know they wouldn’t call it Californian here, but that’s the closest comparison I’ve got.) Northern Californian. Maybe like the Pacific Northwest in the States. Auckland does have a very Seattle sort fo vibe to it. Anyway, everything’s well taken care of and feels kind of generally happy and positive. Except Hamilton. Which Christin and I agreed felt like a decaying southern town. We stopped into the mall to get some food and to get oriented (and take a break from the left-side driving) and it felt like malls I’d been to in the 1980s in dead parts of Alabama. Tacky. Depressing. Empty. We mentioned it to Jenny, the woman who owns the place we’re currently staying and all she really had to say was that Hamilton is one of the few cities in New Zealand that’s landlocked — both physically and culturally. So strange. But. Enough ragging on poor Hamilton. I’m sure it’s not all that horrible, we just had quite an experience.

Otherwise, the day of the drive we just made our way to the farm, here, and then stayed put. Jenny’s little dog (Shelby, I think, although I’m probably mistaken) made quick friends with us, so we played around with her: I’d throw a stick I found at the edge of the corn field out and she’d bounce after it and then, instead of returning it, would shred it down to its small constituent parts. Christin could get her to return with small chucks we could continue to throw, which went well. The pup would excitedly spring about while one of us wound up our shot and she’d then bolt off into the olive trees to chase down the stick part and return with it. (They also have olive trees at the farm and make olive oil). Shelby is not allowed in the house where we’re staying, so she spent a good amount of time sitting right at the edge of the wide doors that opened out from the main living room and kitchen area to the yard and corn fields outside. (And as I write this, she just walked by the window I’m sitting in front of, probably looking to play fetch some more.)

There’s also a cat that comes around occasionally and another older, scruffier looking little dog that has come by once or twice to say hello. A couple of nights ago we were sitting in bed (around 10pm — we’re on a very unusual (for us) 10pm-7am sleeping schedule) and the motion-activated light kept flicking on and off outside the big double-doors that open from the bedroom to the outside world. First flash: No animals. Second flash: Cat. Third flash: Cat and dog. You probably had to have been there. Incidentally, this was also the one clear night we’ve had (although the daytime weather has been spectacular). So the night sky was probably the most star-filled I’ve ever seen. Almost like a canopy — no space not filled with a mist of stars and galaxies. Pretty amazing. My parents might get that effect in Newfoundland, but I don’t think I’ve every seen something like that in the States, even in rural parts of Texas miles from nowhere. (Also: Different constellations in the southern hemisphere.)

So, okay. The tourist stuff.

Two days ago in the afternoon we went to Hobbiton. Yes, this is just about the most tourist-trappy think we’ve done, here. (Probably in running with the Sky Tower in Auckland.) And it’s expensive (NZ$75). And it started off poorly, having to wait at a dumpy little rest-stop sort of place with expensive beers and hideous-looking food. So I was worried. Especially when the bus came to pick us up to drive down to the set — a frumpy, white bus that looked like it’d be brought in from Yugoslavia circa 1983 and hosed off. Oy. But. Once we got down to the set we had a really good time. It’s yet another extremely attractive plot of land, but this time done up with permanent hobbit holes and buildings. It’s the actual place they used to film the Lord of the Rings movies, and it’s extremely well kept. Our tour guide gave us a walking tour of the forty-four fake hobbit hutches and the various other elements in the area — trees, lakes, little farmed plots, etc. All, again, very adorable and fun to photograph. (I’ve got a whole collection, now of Christin standing in front of a wide range of round little doors.)

So we toured around for a couple of hours and then got our free beer at the replica Green Dragon (exterior from the movie, but not the interior). We also had a snack. Then caught the bus back up through the dry, rolling, sheep-laden hills back to the home base. Then back in our car. We decided to go into the city of Matamata to find dinner. Christin wanted pub food — fish and chips. We wound up sitting in the large window of a pub called the Horse and something — no fish and chips, but Christin got an open-faced steak sandwich and I got some pasta. It was alright.

Oh, another quick aside: That first evening we also drove into Matamata to go grocery shopping and Christin made a couscous and venison meatballs dinner for us here at the farm. Which we ate while a small gray dog circled the table and begged for a bite.

Yesterday was a long day. We took a day trip out to see White Island, the active volcano off the coast, here. We got up early (well, not really given our current sleep schedule). But around 7am. And got driving around 8am. And reached Whakatane after a couple hours on the road. The drive, again, was pretty nice. We passed through Rotorua and drove especially winding roads over the mountains that separate the interior areas of the island from the northeast coast. But we made it just in time to buy our tickets and hop the boat out to the island with about thirty other people. The boat ride lasted about ninety minutes. Only took about fifteen minutes for me to start turning green, so Christin and I had to relocate from our nice perch up on the second floor of the boat down to the less tumultuous rear of the boat — the infirmary, I later called it, because the staff kept sending seasick people back there and by the time we got to White Island, there were maybe a half-dozen (or more) pukers back there. I, just to note, never actually threw up and actually did alright. I just had to sit still and concentrate outside the boat.

So we got to White Island. White Island’s the real deal. There’s no tourist information center. There’s no dock. There’s a century-old mostly destroyed sulfphur factory that’s a few rooms large, and that’s it. So we had to go in groups of a dozen our so in a little black inflatable motorboat to actually get to the island and then climb over some large-ish roacks to get onto the island proper. Which, again, is not the usual vision of a south Pacific island. White Island’s a dead crater (actually two connected dead craters) which nothing living in in. It’s all various shades of light and dark gray with stark yellow patches here and there from all of the sulphur. Dead. Like being on the moon or Mars. Very alien. And as we walked closer and closer to the caldera, there were more and more pools of bubbling mud and little holes in the earth spewing steam.

Our tour lasted a couple of hours — oh, and we were given hardhats and gas masks before leaving the boat — always a positive sign — the hardhat we were required to wear and the gas mask we could optionally weat if the sulphur smell got too intense. Which it did a couple of times. (One of our two tour guides also gave us hard candies to suck on, the idea being that they’d keep saliva in our mouths and eclipse some of the sulphur flavor in the air. Which they did, I guess.) So we walked around in our group for a couple of hours. Saw the main opening of the volcano (which, interestingly, is a kind of volcano that only spews ash up into the air — no lava.) Saw the old semi-demolished sulpher factory. Tasted various elements of the volcano: Sulphur powder. Sulphur water. Iron water. Water with all sorts of minerals in it. And such. And then back to the boat for a ruturn trip. We would up making friends on the return trip — I sat next to a couple from Wellington near the front of the boat and Christin chatted with some guy from Stuttgart. The Wellington couple had been to North America on a five week trip and were really, really into talking about sports. The guy was very interested in all American sports. I believe he was a book-maker and she did some kind of rubgy-related work. We talked for most of the trip back (and ate the little box lunches the tour group gave us for the ride back) and had a good time. I didn’t get nauseous at all, thankfully, and we even ran into a pod of dolphins that swam along with the boat for a while. This is an excellent adventure if you ever happen to be in the area, by the way.

So then back to driving. We drove up to Tauranga, also on the coast, and finally got that fish and chips we were looking for. And a few beers. At a water-front pub place that had a trivia night going on. (What’s the color in the middle of the German flag? What four-letter country is Timbuktu in? Etc.) And then drove back to the farm at night, which proved rather harrowing. The left-side driving plus curvy mountain roads plus having a difficult time sometimes figuring out where were made it tough. But we got home around 9pm. And after an attempt to watch TV (and only really finding old SNL episodes to watch), we gave up and went to bed.

And, so, back up this morning. I just went for a run, played a little fetch with the dog, and am now writing this!

PS: I edited the previous post about Auckland to include some photos.