Photos from New Zealand

Click through to see all the photos from our time in New Zealand!


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Wellington, NZ

End of the line. For New Zealand, at least. Wellington is the southernmost tip of the north island and if you want to leave from here, it’s either head back north via car, head south via the ferry or head west via a flight. There’s part of me that would give up the rest of my trip to drive back north or cruise to the south Island, but that wouldn’t be fair to all of the other places we’ve got on this crazy trip of ours.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, I want to point out that Wellington in and of itself is an incredible city. One that’s a bit different from Auckland, but distinctly the same culture. Wellington is to San Francisco as Auckland is to New York City. They’re all recognizably Kiwis, but they’re almost mirror images of themselves. That analogy plays out pretty well for the rest of the country, as well. Whereas the middle of the United States (where I’m from) is commonly referred to as “fly-over country”, you kind of get a sense that the folks from Auckland and Wellington think of the center of their country very similarly; a sort of
“drive-by country”.

Our hosts in Palmerston North provided breakfast and conversation–two of my favorite things– so we got a bit of a late start on the road to Wellington. It was the last trip we’d be taking with the only constant of the past few days–our rental car– so it was a bit of a bittersweet moment. That, of course, didn’t mean that we weren’t happy to be out of it when we pulled into Wellington (sorry, hatchback Toyota Camry).

Wellington, much like Auckland, is a city dominated by its harbor; the museums, the restaurants, the people, all seemed to be huddled around the mass of water. It’s pretty evident why: with tall hills surrounding the city and a deep blue water in its bay, it was tough to do anything but sit around in the perfect weather and drink a beer, while watching high schoolers practice crew near the shores.

One of the biggest highlights of Wellington is one that everyone says to go to: its museum. It’s one of the best at accurately recreating a country’s history in a fairly succinct manner. It did a pretty great job of telling us what we’d just seen on the drive down and putting it into some kind of context.

But since I was only going to be in Wellington for about 24 hours, instead of trying to fit everything the city has to offer into a constricted timeframe, Mike and I decided to just enjoy the weather and the people. We walked along the harbor and stopped at any food stand or beer joint that sounded good at the time. For what was ostensibly supposed to be a work day, it seemed like most people in the city were joining us.

Our final couch-surfing hosts for the trip lived just a few kilometers outside of Wellington. We approached with kids playing in the yard and several other people milling about the house. Our hosts were very gracious with their very large home and allowed several people from all over the world to stay at their place.

As we made our way inside, we quickly realized that this was going to be an experience unlike any other we’d had on the trip. Mike and I had been alone with our hosts at all our previous stops; this was going to give us an opportunity to meet some fellow travelers from all over the world. In the kitchen, everyone was pitching in to make dinner. Mike and I joined in, cutting vegetables and stuffing pasta. When it was all finished, everyone in the house– around 10-12 people– gathered around the table to eat the meal that we all had prepared.

Listening to stories of travels from everyone, made me realize how many different ways people go about doing this. We often talk about “traveling” as if it’s a singular hobby; something that fits some kind of mold. But in all honesty, traveling pretty much means whatever the individual doing it wants it to mean. Some folks were traveling for weeks in just New Zealand; bouncing back and forth between the north island and south Island. Some were staying in Wellington at the house for days on end. Some, like Mike and I, were experiencing Wellington as part of a much larger trip. No matter what the story, it was evident that everyone had a passion for traveling, whatever that meant to them.

As part of the group stayed upstairs to chat, the rest of us headed downstairs to a make-shift movie theater. Much like myself, one of our hosts for the night was a huge movie buff and used the opportunity of having lots of people in his house to either screen something he’d never seen or to show people something they needed to see. On the bill for tonight: Pacific Rim. One I’d already caught, but would gladly watch again.

As the night wound down and everyone started to get into their final sleeping places for the night, Mike and I were given a blanket and a pillow and offered one of the kid’s rooms. Because of some troubles with the ferries, there were many more people staying at the house tonight than normal, so there weren’t any more beds, sleeping bags, or sleeping mats. We’re pretty easy travelers, so we burrowed down on the carpeting of one of the rooms and slept with nothing but our blankets and pillows right on the floor. It was a bit different from the past few nights, but I can’t say I’d have passed up the experience for anything.

As morning rolled around, one of the girls needed a ride to the ferry. Mike and I were happy to oblige. She was a Brit who’d spent the past year in Australia and was touring New Zealand for a month before heading back to England. None of us had to be anywhere too early that morning, so the three of us took the rental car up Mount Victoria for some spectacular views of the city and then came down to eat breakfast and chat about our travels and where we’re going. Much like the people in the middle of the country were the highlight of that part for us, she and her stories were easily the highlight of our last few days in New Zealand.

It’s difficult not to think of my time in New Zealand as ending the same way it started; bookended by (arguably) its two greatest cities. We may be off to Sydney tomorrow for just a few hours in Australia, but it’s hard to imagine anything topping the people and the sights of New Zealand. Of everywhere I’ve traveled, I’d say it’s by far the most accessible for Americans to get around and enjoy themselves; if it wasn’t for the distance and price of a flight, I imagine that many people would have already done so. New Zealand may be a long way geographically from the US, but the Kiwis easily make you feel as if you’ve been one of them for forever. What more could you want from a trip?

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Taupo, Napier, and Palmerston North

The drive from Auckland to Wellington is pretty heavily front loaded when it comes to sights. We knew this starting out; it was one of the reasons we briefly considered flying around the country. But with the total drive time only taking a little over eight hours, we made the call to go ahead and rent a car, spend the majority of our time on the northern part of the north island, and then just knock out the four-hour drive from Taupo to Wellington on State Highway 1 all at the same time.

The best part about having our own car is that those plans can change! Our host in Taupo quickly told us that we shouldn’t take SH 1 all the way down, instead, we should cut over east to Napier and then head down to our host for the next night. We didn’t even hesitate, it would add a bit more to the driving time on the trip, but the opportunity to visit one of the most beautiful areas of the country was tough to pass up.

We’d been told the drive down SH 1 after leaving Taupo was pretty barren, but the drive to Napier was more like the one from Auckland: incredible scenery that varied from rolling hills to volcanic peaks, which opened up into a bay of water. We took it all in as we drove, but our main destination was the city on the Pacific.

Arriving in Napier, the views were beautiful, but it was clear that while this town still had tourists, the majority of people milling about were locals. Napier’s architecture is firmly rooted in Art Deco, with Spanish influences. It gave the entire city a much more distinct look from the rest of the country.

Getting out of the car seemingly confirmed much of the same: this was a city firmly rooted in every-day life, not one that catered to the every whim of any tourist that stopped by. Napier’s main attraction (besides it’s stunning views of the Pacific) was Train World and Lilliput. Two working model train constructions that while interesting in context, could hardly compare with bubbling mud pits and boiling lakes.

The further into the city we got, the more the more charming Napier became. The advertisements, the movie posters, the architecture, it all seemed to be perpetually stuck in an alternate past. We walked into a bakery for some meat pies and was able to purchase lunch for $5 (when we’d been spending closer to $20 in other cities).

But while eating that meat pie, I began to come to a realization: I was really enjoying this. The people, the atmosphere, the markets, they’re so different from everything else we’d seen thus far, that just the contrast itself was exciting.

With a renewed sense of purpose, we decided to take advantage of the lack of tourists and go have a beer with some of the locals. We found a little pub, ordered a beer and chatted up the bartender for an hour or so. She was able to suggest many more things for us to do, including a drive up to Mount Te Papa’s peak and having a beer in some of the other smaller towns.

We’d told our hosts for the night, we’d be at their place around 6:30 and while there was much more small-town sight seeing to do, we reluctantly had to leave the Hawke’s Bay area, if we wanted to make the two-hour drive to Palmerston North to meet our deadline.

Luckily, what we were coming into was very similar to Napier. Our hosts for the night lived outside of the city in a fantastic farm house, equipped with nine miniature ponies. Their kids had left for college a couple of years ago, so they’d began giving out their rooms to couch surfers. We’d been really lucky with all our hosts thus far, and this was no different: not only did Mike and I have separate beds, we also had separate rooms!

After dinner at our hosts’ favorite restaurant in town, they took us over to one of their friend’s houses for a nightcap and some conversation that ranged from American politics to earthquakes.

If all of this sounds very similar to an experience of your own, that’s because it is. There’s been countless nights in Eddyville, Bowling Green, and Tallahassee, where we all went out to dinner and then headed back to someone’s house for talking (or music). Sometimes as I go around these areas and see nothing but the cities, it’s really tough to remember that there are actual people living here. In much the same way as I have a life outside of the tourists traps of Washington DC, New Zealanders have lives outside of the tourists traps of their country.

This was something I, of course, knew, but hadn’t really internalized. Just like the US, culture and people exist outside of the large cities. When going to a country and only seeing the sights in a guidebook, it’s difficult to remember that. But, when you get out of the bright lights of the city and get under the bright stars of the countryside, it helps put things in perspective. I may not want to spend all of my trip in small towns, but just the contrast between them and big cities, makes me wonder what I’ve missed in other places I’ve been to.

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Rotorua and the Volcanic Valley

New Zealand is a country that’s relatively new. Not necessarily politically, but geologically. That’s an odd thought. When we talk about a country being new, we mean the government was just formed. But that’s not true of New Zealand. Because of the crazy amount of volcanoes and geothermal activity, the country is constantly reforming itself into something new. The middle part of the country–between Rotorua and Taupo– is especially evident of this. It’s literally teeming at the seams. Mountains block the horizon on all sides, volcanoes loom over every day life, plumages of steam escape from the ground like a tea pot finally boiling. The middle part of New Zealand is as unique an area as I’ve ever seen. Mike and I spent the bulk of this day in Waimangu Volcanic Valley. Much like New Zealand itself, Waimangu is an infant in life terms; it wasn’t created until Mount Tarawera’s eruption leveled the area. Because of that, it carries the tag of “the world’s newest geothermic system”. The valley itself is spectacular: steam hisses from rips in the ground, boiling lakes line the hillside, Mount Tarawera itself rises over the valley as a reminder of what once happened and could happen again. The entire park offers a six-kilometer hiking trail and a forty-five minute boat ride around Lake Rotomahana. The hike itself was like exploring a different planet. Frying Pan Lake was the first stop and highlight of the walk. Seen from a distance it looks like a normal lake in the U.S. on summer mornings: it appeared as if a thin layer of water was evaporating up from the early morning sun. But as we got closer, it became very evident that this was something entirely different. The heat causing the steam wasn’t coming from an external source like the sun, but rather internally. The water was literally boiling from a heat source deep below the surface. The closer we got, the more heat we could feel emanating from it.

To top it all off, steam wasn’t just coming from the water itself, but also from the ground and from the rocks lining the lake. When I’m on solid land, I get the sense that there’s nothing below my feet but more rocks and dirt. Everywhere you stepped in Waimangu, it felt like a volcano ready to go off, as if one wrong step could cause an eruption. I didn’t feel like I had to lightly walk around the park, but it’s never far from your mind what’s right below you.

The boat ride around Rotomahana gave off a similarly eerie feeling. No matter which way you turned, you couldn’t escape Mount Tarawera and the gaping crater on its side. While the lake itself wasn’t steaming, it was lined with plumages of steam and geysers, all of which seemed intent on taking over the lake at any moment.

After we left the park, we visited some of the other sites in the area: saw (and smelled) the boiling mud pits and relaxed ins some of the hot springs, before heading down to Taupo for the night to stay with our next couch-surfing host. Couch surfing in Taupo was not as literal, our host had a room with two twin beds for us. After a long day of hiking, getting to sleep in a bed was a sight for sore eyes (and feet).

Taupo and Roturua are constantly being reformed not by politicians with their promises, but by much stronger forces below the surface. New Zealand is a resilient country, when something erupts or changes, the people adapt and rebuild as necessary. That’s the New Zealand way, it’s a country that continues to remake itself, it’s constantly new. The Auckland Museum discussed that it’s only a matter of time before a big eruption wipes out the city. When that day comes, it’ll be a disaster of proportions never seen before. But from what I’ve seen and the people I’ve spoken to, New Zealand will persist.

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On the Road and Waitomo Caves

Well, folks: Michael Turner has finally graced New Zealand with his presence. While we’re booked on all our other flights together, the initial ones (Dulles to Seoul to Auckland), we had to book separately because of a lack of award space. Mike rolled into the Hilton Auckland– rental car in tow– and we had a spectacular (free) breakfast right on the harbor, thanks to the Hilton.

One of the initial things we disagreed on was how to see New Zealand: my gut said it would be best to rent a car and drive from Auckland to Wellington, but Mike wanted to fly to each city, so that we’d have more time in the major places. After a reversal of opinions (I came around to his idea around the time he was warming up to mine), we decided to rent the car in Auckland and spend our four days driving from the top of the island, down to the bottom.

The bulk of what there is to see on the north island, tends to hover around the middle. New Zealand is known for its extreme sports, geothermic activity, and caves. One of the more famous cave systems, Waitomo Caves, was just a short detour from our trip south. We decided to take a couple of hours and head over to see the system.

We arrived fairly late in the afternoon with very little idea what seeing these caves would involve. We walked into a large open room filled with people from all over the world. The tour operators were busy booking different tours for all the different people there. Mike and I walked in and asked for whichever tour was going off next.

Luckily for us, the Black Water Rafting Co.’s Black Labyrinth tour happened to be the next up. We were ushered downstairs, forced into water-filled wetsuits, lace-up boots, and given very little information what this tour involved. I probably should have been asking more questions about what was going on right around the time they handed us the helmets, but I figured, hey, if they’re handing me a helmet, they have to somewhat concerned about safety, right?

We proceeded to hop on a bus with about ten other people and were driven to the mouth of the cave. I use the term “mouth” very loosely, it was more of a sliver of an opening in the ground with water pouring into it. Mike and I were handed donut-shaped rubber tubes (like the ones you get when you tube down a river or ski slope) and ushered down into the crevice.

The next hour and a half was absolutely spectacular. I think I was expecting something similar to those lazy, beer-filled days on the river during the summer. Instead, we got a mixture of hiking over some fairly rough cave terrain, jumping off waterfalls, and tubing down an underground water system with nothing to light the way but a ceiling full of glowworms and a small LED headlamp attached to the aforementioned helmets. There’s some pictures below from the company’s website (we weren’t about to pay the $50 for the ones from our tour).

With the cave tour wrapped up, we drove the rest of the way to Rotorua to meet up with our host for the night. Couch surfing is a service that hooks travelers up with people willing to host them for the night. It gives you an incredible way to not only have a free place to stay for the night, but also spend time with some local folks who love traveling.

Our host was great. We ended up getting in a bit later than we’d wanted, but she was completely flexible. She was a young woman who’d been hosting couch surfers for the past few months as a way to meet new people coming into town. We took her out to her favorite restaurant, Lone Star, and we all enjoyed some beer and steaks.

As we ended the day, one thing was abundantly clear: it was absolutely the right call to rent a car and drive across the country. Not only did we get to see a cave system that was located pretty far away from a major city, but also we got to meet a great new person who lived in a spectacular part of the country. Tomorrow we’re going to see more of Rotorua, which has a lot of the geothermal activity in New Zealand.

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The first day of a trip is always a weird one. I’m lucky to not be dealing with any huge jet-lag problems (which is a blessing considering the 18-hour time difference), but often I do have to deal with expectation lag. Sometimes it takes a little while for my expectations for a trip to catch up to what’s actually going on.

For something like this around the world trip, you can imagine that expectations are fairly high. Usually I only have to deal with what I think about a trip (and sometimes what Julie thinks about a trip). But with us documenting where we’re going and what we’re doing as we’re doing it, there’s outside expectations that while I don’t necessarily live by, they are in the back of my mind.

I arrived in Auckland with these expectations at the forefront. “First day of the trip! Let’s get out and see and do and taste and smell and touch and hear everything!!” I made it to the Hilton Auckland around 10am and was lucky that they had a room open for me. 1 I spent about an hour in the room and then was out to find Adventure! (with a capital A and an exclamation point) wherever it could be found.

I’m trying to become less of a hotel-chain guy and trying out other methods of booking rooms. But as a jumping off point, it sure was nice to have a centrally located hotel. I had a general idea that I wanted to check out the Auckland Museum and see the Sky Tower, but with only one day here, I decided to get on one of the “hop on, hop off” explorer buses; it’d let me quickly see the city and it made stops at both of those locations.

I paid the $40 and then grabbed the brochure. In retrospect, I should have done those in reverse. I was right in my assumption that the two best things to see were the Auckland Museum and the Sky Tower. Besides the spectacular views of a city situated on two harbors, I was wrong in my assumption that there was much else to see. After driving by and seeing a rose garden (with over 50 types of roses!), I was happy to get to the Auckland Museum.

The focus on the Maori culture2 was incredible and the volcanoes exhibit was spectacular.3 But, what I liked most about the museum was how evident that New Zealand took pride in its culture. There were several exhibits that were more mundane than others, but it all fed into this sense of identity for New Zealand. One of the best, was the Sir Edmund Hilary exhibit, a New Zealander, and the first (white) person to summit Mt. Everest.

I hopped back on the bus and sadly passed up Bill Clinton’s favorite market place in Auckland (because he visited it…twice) on my way to the Sky Tower, the tallest free-standing tower in the southern hemisphere. I decided to save my money and not go to the top, but it had some nice retail space, restaurants, and a casino (with the craziest rules in blackjack I’ve ever seen).

I ended the day by coming back to the hotel, resting for a while and then deciding to wonder around until I found a suitable enough hole-in-the-wall place to have dinner. This was the best decision I’ve made thus far. Not because the food was especially delicious (though, it was pretty good), but because it helped me realize something: not every city is Washington DC or New York or London. Sometimes the value in the city is the city itself, it’s vibe. I walked around Auckland to tourists finding their way, to locals nodding and saying hello, to teenage street dancers, and to couples sitting benches staring at the harbor.

I began to realize that it wasn’t that there was something wrong with Auckland, rather there was something wrong with my expectations. What I wanted from Auckland wasn’t what Auckland was about. I was expecting a city teeming with monuments where dead white men did something important; instead I got a city that’s reflective of its Maori past, but also provides a safe and advanced infrastructure for its people. Auckland didn’t need to change, my expectations did.

I’m very lucky I took that walk around town and just took in the city. It helped me learn that while expectations are fine and they’re good for setting up a trip, that relying on them too much can often cause you to not enjoy something as much as you should. I finally was able to judge Auckland based on its own merits, rather than judging it as the triumphant beginning to a life-altering trip (“Eat, Pray, Love 2: Eating and Loving and Praying Morer”). I was able to solve my expectations lag for Auckland just in time; let’s hope it carries over for the rest of the trip.

  1. I’ve found that sometimes the best thing about elite status isn’t the room upgrades or the extra points, but the ability to leverage things you need. I’d just come off 26 hours of flying and while I wasn’t sleepy, I did want to sit down and take a shower. My gold status with Hilton helped ensure they made a room available to me five hours before I was supposed to check in
  2. The native people of New Zealand who arrived on boats from Polynesia around 1000 AD.
  3. New Zealand has around 50 volcanoes– some active, some not– but most volcanologist agree that it’s only a matter of time before one erupts and *really* disrupts life in New Zealand. Most around Auckland are inactive or extinct, but I’m hoping to get much more into this as we drive around the country.

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