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Josiah's New Zealand Travelogue
December 2009 - January 2010
Day 1 (20th - 22nd): Plane, plane, plane, Auckland

Ah, gotta love long plane rides...or not. So why New Zealand? Well, my dad has always wanted to go (a combination of the scenery, hiking, and plant life, I think) and, with our schedules continuing to diverge, this could very well be the last "great family vacation" my parents, brother, and I get to take together. So New Zealand it is.
Anyway, the day actually started out with my parents helping me move the last of my stuff out of my Arizona apartment, as I'm going to be moving in with them for the next month or two while I look for a job now that I've got my master's degree. With that taken care of, we all hung out at my brother's place for a while since our flight didn't leave till the afternoon. In the meantime, my parents decided to spend some time on one of their hobbies, looking as real estate, and checked out a condo place right near my brother's apartment. They had some really nice units. In one, the elevator actually opened right into your condo. Very cool.
But that's all off topic. Our trip started out with the usual run through Phoenix's rather boring airport, followed by a ninety minute flight to LA. This was in turn followed by a trip through customs (international flight and all that) and then a "lovely" five hour layover. Helpful tip, if you ever find yourself flying internationally out of LA, once you get through security there's hardly any shops, restaurants, or anything. So eat, buy your magazines, or whatever first. Fortunately, I had David Drake's Lord of the Isles and Mario & Luigi Bowser's Inside Story on my DS to keep me entertained (though not fed). The flight itself was your usual long (a bit over ten hour) flight. We had a big plane and the flight was smooth enough but it was long, not all that comfortable, and the food was lousy (which is pretty much the norm for airline food).
You'd think by now we'd be in New Zealand, right? Not quite... See, it was apparently a lot cheaper to change planes in Fiji. Seeing as we arrived at about 5 AM (local time) I didn't really get a chance to see much of Fiji aside from the airport, and a brief overview when our plane to New Zealand finally took off. It looked very green and tropical and, uh, that's really about all I can say from my brief time there. The airport was interesting (more of a shopping plaza than an airport, really), but they made everyone run through customs again despite the fact that they really didn't have enough people or security equipment to handle such a large group in any sort of reasonable amount of time. When all was said and done, we spent about forty-five minutes in line, another couple hours in the airport, and another three hours on a plane before finally arriving in Auckland, New Zealand.
We crossed the international date line during all of this (hence the reason why I listed multiple days as "day 1") and ended up arriving in the early afternoon New Zealand time (which is twenty hours later, or four earlier (and one day later) than Arizona time). From a jet lag perspective, that's pretty easy to get used to (though I've never had much problem with jet lag) though the combination of all that time in planes and airports, combined with that busy morning back in Phoenix, made things a bit worse. After spending an overly long time getting everything with our rental car worked out, and freaking out as my mom tried to get used to driving on the left side of the road, we made it to our hotel, dropped everything off, and spent the next few hours wondering around the city.
My early thoughts on New Zealand? Well, it looks a lot like the Eastern US. Very green and hilly, though with some interesting trees. Auckland is also somewhat similar to the Eastern US, or maybe some of the older cities in California. It's got the same mix of quirky stores and restaurants and big (often US) chains (McDonald's and Starbucks are, unsurprisingly, not that hard to find). Despite being the largest city in New Zealand, it doesn't really feel overly large or crowded. And, while it doesn't seem all that old, it's not extremely modern either. It's certainly cleaner than most US cities, though not as clean as cities in Japan. It's even got the Seattle Space Nee-, er, the Auckland Sky Tower. What's cool is that you can actually pay to take a free fall off of it. Maybe if I have some time later on the trip...
Getting back to the city, we spent some time wandering around downtown. There was a park there with some more nice trees, a big fountain, and the occasional interestingly designed building. Oh, and we saw Santa. I guess he visits New Zealand early. That and he seems to have been really bulking up lately... We mostly just looked around, checking out the occasional store and restaurant. Lots of clothing stores (some pretty fancy) and souvenir stores mostly. When asking one local for directions to a certain shopping area, he said to look for the big chimney. I was pretty sure we'd either misheard or he'd given us bad directions...at first. Turns out though, it's actually good advice. After a few hours of this, and picking up supper at an Asian food court (more on the Asian stuff in today's Random New Zealand Comment), we headed back to the hotel to rest up in preparation for tomorrow.
Interestingly enough, despite the fact that New Zealand is an English speaking country, there's still the occasional weird language thing. For example, the Hot Yacht Sandwich. Does anyone get that sign? I don't... And then there's this place. Personally, I wouldn't name my company after a type of hospital that treats crazy people...

Random New Zealand Comment: The Asian Influence
Since it's fairly close to China, Japan, and the like, New Zealand gets a lot of Asian tourists (there's actually a big group of Japanese teens staying the same hotel as me). It has a lot of Asian citizens as well. While I haven't seen a dedicated "China Town" in Auckland, there's so many Asian restaurants and stores (mostly Chinese, Japanese, and Korean) scattered all over the place that they really don't need one. Not sure how prevalent they are outside the city (haven't seen many yet), or how big of an influence it has on the New Zealand culture itself, but it's certainly worth noting.

Day 2 (23th): Heading North
Remarkably, and very conveniently, my dad actually managed to sleep through pretty much the entire night (he usually has a lot of trouble with jet lag), so we didn't have to worry about him wanting to leave at 3 AM since he couldn't get back to sleep. Though, come 8 AM, we were still in the car and headed off to our first "hub" hotel, several hours to the north. I spent most of the drive watching the scenery and listening to music on my MP3 player. New Zealand still reminds me a lot of the Eastern US. Very lush and green, with lots of rolling hills and tiny little towns. There's a whole bunch of farms as well. Lots of different types of fruit are grown here and there's plenty of cows and sheep too. I have to admit that, compared to Japan and Europe (where I went once a year or two before starting Pebble Version), New Zealand isn't nearly as "different" from the US. Nothing wrong with that, and it certainly makes getting around a lot easier, but it's a little less exciting that way.
We stopped along the way and took a quick walk to a nice waterfall, followed by a much longer walk through the nearby forest. Definitely some plants here that you don't see in the US. Some nice flowers too (though most of them do grow in the US). Here's a pic of myself and my parents on a walkway in the middle of the forest.
After that it was back to the car for a while longer until we arrived at our destination, a small beach town called Taipa. Our hotel is right on the beach, though it was pretty cloudy and windy today so I didn't feel like getting in the water. We walked along the beach for a while though and spotted some of the local wildlife such as seagulls (pretty much the same everywhere in the world) and assorted sea creatures (such as this starfish) hanging out in some tidal pools.
Next up, dinner in a small fishing town nearby (they had good fish and chips) and grocery shopping. So far, all the grocery stores I've seen here in New Zealand have been pretty small, though that could just be due to the locations I've been to so far (downtown in a city and in small rural towns. As for the food, aside from some different brand names and a bit more of a focus on organic and natural stuff, most of the food isn't all that different than what you'd find in grocery stores in the US. Though the more popular fruits and vegetables are a bit different (beets and, unsurprisingly, kiwi fruits are quite popular here, for example). And, oddly enough, instead of mild, medium, and sharp, cheddar cheese comes in mild and "tasty" varieties.

Random New Zealand Comment: The Accent
I suppose that to the people here I'm the one with the accent, though I have a very hard time thinking of American English (well, aside from the deep south and hillbilly varieties) as having an accent. It all seems pretty plain and flat to me... Anyway, the accent here strikes me as being closer to British than Australian English. Though, seeing as I've never been to Australia (I've met a couple people from there in real life and have some Australian friends online though) or the UK (though I have an aunt from Britain), I'm nowhere near an expert their accents (their real everyday ones, not the stereotypes) and could be way off here. At very least, I can tell that they use a lot of British spellings for words.

Day 3 (24th): Exploring the North
Today was spent exploring various parts of the Northern section of New Zealand's North island. To start, we decided to go check out some hot springs. It was a kinda long drive and, along the way, we passed through a lot more tiny little towns and sprawling farmland. The springs themselves were interesting. They were actually less like an American hot spring or a Japanese onsen and more like those bubbling mineral pools you see at places like Yellowstone National Park. They weren't bad, but I prefer normal hot springs.
When we'd finished up at the springs, we went to check out some nice idyllic little beach towns. We started in a town called Piahia and then took a ferry across the bay to the very pretty town of Russel. Both towns had a bunch of shops and restaurants and lots of pretty flowers. The ferry itself also provided some nice views of the coast. Out last stop was the town of Kerikeri. It wasn't on the coast, but was the largest town we've seen since Auckland and had a main street with a wide variety of shops and restaurants.
So yeah, it was a nice day, though nothing overly exciting. It was nice to see towns like Russel and Kerikeri though, I'd been starting to think that all the towns north of Auckland were tiny places with little besides small grocery stores and fish & chips restaurants. I'm glad that's not the case.

Random New Zealand Comment: Health
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a country with so many rural areas, New Zealand seems to have a very strong interest in healthy and organic foods. Not that other countries don't, but it seems to be a bit more widespread here. To the point where even a lot of things in regular grocery stores are advertised as being all natural and/or organic. There's a lot of health food stores as well. Most interesting to me (though probably not so much to most of you) is all the carob products available in those health food stores. If you're not familiar with carob, it's something like chocolate (personally, I like carob a lot better than chocolate). It used to be really big in US health food stores back ten or fifteen years ago, but has since been eclipsed by chocolate and now you can't find nearly as many carob items as you used to be able too. Being a big carob fan, it's really cool to see such a large selection available here.

Day 4 (25th): Hitting the Beaches
Being Christmas, we figured that most things would be closed so my dad decided to use this day to check out some of the nearby beaches. Along the way, we found ourselves driving through some drier areas, with some more interesting looking trees. The first two beaches we stopped at were very big, very pretty, and very empty. The first one had a ton of shells lying around, some of which were fairly nice. The second beach included a little hidden beach nearby and, while we were there, we hiked up a tall grassy hill, which offered some great views of the beach and the surrounding countryside.
We drove around and stopped at a couple more beaches after that but the first two were by far the nicest and had the best sand. I got part way in the water a couple times but it was a little cold and, since all the water was really calm (my favorite thing to do in the ocean in play around in the waves) I didn't have a whole lot of motivation to get totally wet.
The rest of the day was spent hanging around the hotel and relaxing, which was a nice change of pace from all the driving and walking we've been doing. We also grilled up some of the local lamb and beef for supper. It was pretty good, but I definitely missed my spice collection (currently sitting back in the US).

Day 5 (26th): Hiking in the Mangroves
Today we took a hike to the Haruru Falls. Since it was a 10 kilometer hike (five each way) my dad wanted to get a fairly early start. Despite a minor snag with the GPS routing us on some small, slow, curvy country road, we got to the trail head ok and headed out. The trail started out in a forest next to a river. Here's a shot of me in the forest. It eventually led out onto a boardwalk through a mangrove forest. The tide was out at the time so we could see the local "wildlife". Can you spot the mud crab? There was also snapping shrimp there. We didn't see any, but you could actually hear them snapping. Never thought shrimp could make so much noise... After the mangroves, there was more regular forest followed by the Haruru Falls themselves. We stopped there for a lunch break before heading back. Along the way, I snapped some pictures of some of the shags hanging out and nesting in the nearby trees. There were even some babies (though rather large ones). The babies warbled (both noisy and silently) quite a lot. It was a little weird.
After the hike, we returned to the hotel and I gave the beach another try. I actually got in the ocean for a while. It was cold at first, but I got used to it after a bit. Still no waves though. Now that I think about it, I haven't been to a beach with waves in a really really long time. Several years at least. Maybe not since before college. I'll have to keep that in mind for future vacation planning...

Random New Zealand Comment: Animals
New Zealand actually doesn't have much in the way of native animals. There's plenty of birds, including the famous kiwi birds, some sea creatures (fish, crabs, etc), and insects of course, but that's about it. Now a days though, people have the usual dogs and cats and there's a ton of cows and sheep. Which makes sense. Considering all the grassy areas, mild weather, and lack of predators, this country is most likely an excellent places to raise livestock. There's possums too, though I imagine they were brought here at some point for one reason or another. But anyway, the general lack of animals, especially the little ones you see a lot like squirrels, rabbits, and the like, is a little odd.

Day 6 (27th): Driving South
Today marked the end of our time in the north. We left early and got to Kerikeri just in time for the weekly farmers' market. It was pretty nice as far as farmers' markets go. Lots of fruits, veggies, and assorted other foods. Some great snacks too.
After that, it was time for a whole lot of driving. We passed a big lake and lots of green farm covered countryside. We also made a stop to see New Zealand's oldest (and probably largest) tree. Not sure how well you can tell just from the photo, but the tree was huge and completely dwarfed everything around it. Pretty cool.
After spending most of the day in the car, we eventually made it to Hamilton, a nice little city with a river running through it. Reminds me a little of Austin, actually... Since it was Sunday, a lot of things were closed but we walked around downtown a bit and checked out the restaurants (there are a lot of restaurants) before eating at a Mediterranean place. I also got a picture of a weird sign and one of my brother and I next to an odd sci-fi statue.

Random New Zealand Comment: Money
New Zealand's currency is the dollar. As of earlier today, $1 NZ was worth about $0.70 US. Like the US dollar, the NZ dollar is equal to one hundred cents. There's bills for $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100 (all of which have this odd transparent plastic oval shaped bit in them) and coins for $0.10, $0.20, $0.50, $1, and $2. The interesting thing is, despite the fact that there's no coins for anything less than ten cents, things can still cost eleven cents, thirteen cents, and the like. So instead of paying the exact price, once your bill has been added up the store (or wherever) rounds things up or down to the nearest multiple of ten. Kinda strange if you ask me, but it works.

Day 7 (28th): Kiwi, Caves, & More
This was the day I was really looking forward to. Our main destination was the Waitomo Caves to take a black water tubing tour, but more on that later. On the way to the caves, we stopped at the Kiwi House, a bird park that has, among other things, kiwi birds. The kiwi themselves were pretty cool. They're a bit over a foot tall and very different from other birds I've seen. Unfortunately, we weren't allowed to photograph the kiwi but I did get pictures of a kiwi skeleton and my brother next to a big kiwi statue. The Kiwi House also had lots of other birds, like these clam eater birds, and a few other creatures, such as this weird salamander thing.
The cave tour itself was really awesome. My dad didn't go, but my mom, brother, and I did. We took the Black Labyrinth tour. Unfortunately, since we spent most of it in the water, I wasn't able to bring my camera. But here's the basics. Our group (twelve people plus two guides) started off getting wet suits and caving helmets (complete with head lamps) then drove to a nearby river to get our tubes and spend a few minutes practicing how to jump backwards into the water (landing on your tube in the process) and paddle around. Then it was off to the cave itself. To sum it up, we basically followed a river through part of the Waitomo cave system. Sometimes we walked through the water, sometimes we floated on it. We also had to clamber over some rocks and make a few jumps down to the lower levels (landing in the water on our tubes). Our guides were great and pretty funny, and climbing and floating around through the caves was awesome (and cold). But that's not all, there were also the glow worms. Actually a type of maggot, glow worms emit a bioluminescence in order to attract and trap insects that wander into the cave. With our head lamps turned off, the ceiling of the cave was almost like looking up at a starry sky. The entire experience was really cool and I highly recommend it (for all of you guys who just happen to come to the North Island of New Zealand).
After we got out of the cave, we met my dad who wanted to take us to some spots he'd visited while we were floating around in the dark. First was a short walk through very jungle like terrain to the Manapohue Natural Bridge. The "bridge" is a stone arch of sorts that you can walk under. The bridge (and the surrounding forest) are both great and very pretty. Next, another quick hike. This time to the Marokopa Falls. Easily the best waterfall we've seen so far this trip. He's a shot of my whole family at the falls.
Our hotel is in a small town nearby that proclaims itself to be the "shearing capital of the world". Ok... It's a pretty place, though there isn't much here. Surprisingly, our "hotel room" turned out to be an entire house. And a pretty fancy (albeit old) one at that. There's a lot of nice flowers nearby so here's one flower picture I'm particularly pleased with to finish things up for the day.

Day 8 (29th): Rotorua
The weather took a turn for the worse, prompting a sudden change of plans. Instead of heading to a national park to go hiking (which wouldn't have been much fun in the rain), we pushed it to next week and headed to the town of Rotorua instead. Along the way, we stopped at The Lost Valley, an area with a lot of thermal activity (geysers, mud pots, and the like), kind of like what you'd see at Yellowstone National Park back in the US. There was even a cave with a thermal pool at the bottom. The valley itself was a short ferry ride across a river and had a nice circular walking path that hit all the main points. It rained most of the time we were there, but I had my umbrella so it wasn't too bad.
Once we'd seen the whole valley, we continued on to Rotorua, a large town / small city on a lake. Like The Lost Valley, there's a lot of thermal activity in the area so it's got its share of geysers and hot springs. It's a nice town, though you can smell sulfur in the air in many areas. I'm not sure if that's something I'd get used to or really sick of... Anyway, we stopped at a shopping center to grab lunch and look around a bit and then dropped by our hotel to unpack and figure out how we wanted to spend the rest of the day, since the rain had screwed up our original plans.
My brother really wanted to do the Zorb. You may have seen it on TV. Basically you get inside a giant inflatable ball and roll down a hill. They had the normal version and a wet version, where instead of being strapped in you're just in the ball with enough water to ensure that you're constantly slipping and sliding around. That's what my brother and I did. It was a lot of fun, though very expensive considering how short the ride was.
After the Zorb, we went around the town a bit, saw some sheep, and checked out the restaurants. We ended up eating at a place called New Zealand Supreme, a Chinese restaurant of sorts specializing in local meats including venison and duck. It was all really good. Duck is a lot better than I expected and it was the best venison I've ever had (not that I've had a lot though).
To finish up the day, we took a walk by the lake, which was home to tons of seagulls, black swans, and other birds. There were too many clouds to see much of a sunset, but it was still a pretty area. We'll be staying in Rotorua for another day, so I'll talk more about it next time.

Day 9 (30th): Hanging Out in Rotorua
My family and I spent the day hanging out in Rotorua. My dad and I left early to visit the Rainbow Springs Nature Park. It's a zoo of sorts focusing on birds. They also hatch and raise young kiwi there. It's a nice place. Here's a few animal pictures. First up, trout (they've got a lot of them), a native New Zealand Kea bird, a neat bird with a sort of white ruff, a wallaby (there's actually some wild ones around that were brought from Australia), and some sheep (since it is New Zealand and all).
After we'd finished in the park, we met up with my mom and brother and went to a nearby hot springs spa. This was a more normal hot springs (unlike the one we went to up north). It had a lot of pools of different temperatures and made for a pleasant way to pass the morning. After that we walked around downtown Rotorua for a while, looked in stores, got lunch, and did some grocery shopping. And, well, that was about it. We spent most of the rest of the day hanging out at the hotel (doing laundry, relaxing, etc). My mom and I also headed back to Rainbow Springs for a little while (my tickets were good for the entire day) to see if we could get a better look at the kiwi later in the day. Tried to get a picture for you, but it was pretty dark so none of them came out very well.

Random New Zealand Comment: Food
Like it's "mother" country England, New Zealand isn't really a place that comes to mind when you think of foreign food. NZ food, unsurprisingly, borrows a lot from England. There's tons of fish and chips places everywhere (NZ also has chips made out of their local yams) and meat pies of various types are quite popular as well. Meat in general is big, especially beef and lamb, though there's plenty of chicken and pork as well. As for foreign food (well, foreign to New Zealand), a lot of your "typical American" meat dishes like hamburgers and steak are pretty common. And, in the small towns, fish and chips, hamburgers, and meat pies are often the only things you'll find. In the cities and larger towns though, you'll also find quite a lot of Indian, Thai, and Chinese restaurants along with some Italian, Japanese, and Korean, with the occasional other type of some sort. It's certainly a lot more diverse than Japan was, though some types of food (such as Mexican) are still pretty rare.
Grocery stores are pretty similar to what you'd see in the US, though the ones in small towns tend to have pretty limited selections. Some types of tropical fruit (such as kiwi) are a lot more common than in the US and there's the occasional odd popular item (lime flavored milk, chicken flavored potato chips, etc), but they don't strike me as being nearly as "different" as Japanese grocery stores did.

Day 10 (31st): Wellington
We got an early start today and headed South towards Wellington, New Zealand's capital city. It was about a six hour drive and, aside from a brief stop at New Zealand's largest lake, we didn't really take any breaks on the way and got there in the early afternoon.
Wellington is NZ's second largest city (after Auckland) but it's pretty condensed, which can make it feel larger at times. It's a rather pretty city situated by the ocean. While the downtown area is flat, the city itself is surrounded by hills so if you leave the central area you can expect a lot of climbing.
After checking into our hotel, we split up. My mom and brother went to check out the stores while my dad and I took an old fashioned cable car up to the botanical gardens. The gardens were pretty and had some interesting flowers I hadn't seen before. Though they were situated right on the side of a hill and featured a twisty maze of paths that made them a little hard to navigate. We walked around for a bit then headed back towards and through the downtown area, looking for a health food store my dad wanted to visit. After that we slowly made our way along the harbor and back towards the hotel. There was quite a lot of walking involved, but it gave me a good overview of the city. It's nice. Very clean, with lots of shops and restaurants, though they're scatted about a bit instead of being organized into different "districts" like they are in many larger cities. On a more odd note, we saw a lot of people riding around on unicycles. Turns out, the unicycle world championships are going to be here sometime in January. I never knew they had championships for unicycles. I guess they do tricks and stuff, though I'm not really sure.
Anyway, my whole family met up later on and got supper at a Turkish restaurant. I haven't had Turkish food before, but it was pretty good. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped by the area where Wellington is doing their New Year's Eve party. They had some local singers and stuff to entertain people, though it seemed to be aimed at a younger audience. It was mildly entertaining, but not really my type of thing. Besides, I'll have to get up fairly early for tomorrow's hike so staying up late probably wouldn't be a good idea.

Day 11 (1st): Seals!
January 1, the beginning of 2010 and also my 25th birthday. But, seeing as my family and I are in New Zealand, those things didn't make as much of an impact on the day as they otherwise might have. Anyway, we started off with a fairly long drive towards a hike where they did some filming for The Lord of the Rings movies. But before going on the hike itself, we continued down the road, hoping to find the fur seal colony that's supposed to live there. Though we ended up driving quite a lot, we did find the seals, which made it worthwhile. There were a surprisingly large number of them just lounging on the rocks along a mostly deserted stretch of beach. They didn't seem to be very scared of humans (or maybe they were just lazy) and lay there watching as we walked around and looked at them. They'd waddle away if we got too close, but that was about it. While I've seen seals before in zoos and all, it was really cool to be able to see so many of them in the wild. Since we were there, we also climbed up to an old lighthouse to get a great view of the coastline. Then, after a little more time spent looking around the nearby beaches, we made our way back to that hike.
The hike was to The Pinnacles. Though my memory is a bit fuzzy (been a while since I've watched the movies), it's supposed to be the place that Aragorn's group went through on their way to find the army of the dead. The Pinnacles were neat and the hike itself wasn't bad, though most of the scenery reminded me a lot of the American mid-west, which I see all the time back home.
We did some grocery shopping and spent a little while walking around in a mall on our way back to Wellington, but nothing too exciting. Shortly after making it back to the hotel, my mom, brother, and I went out for my birthday dinner. We went to a place called The Thai Chef, since I really like Thai food and it won a big award. It was a bit of a walk, but the food was worth it. I had duck with a yellow curry that had some vegetables and lychee fruit in it. Really, really good. And that was it for the day. We've still got one more day in Wellington, so I'll be talking more about it next time.

Day 12 (2nd): Hanging Out in Wellington
Saturday in Wellington was very cloudy and very windy. From what I've heard, the wind is pretty common. I've got to admit that I have a tough time thinking of this type of weather as summer, even early summer. Between the temperatures, wind, and clouds, it's more like spring or fall. Actually, while we're on that topic, I have trouble calling December and January summer regardless of what the weather is like. Sure I've been to hot places during winter months (my family used to go to Florida a lot on vacation and I've spent a few years living in Phoenix, after all) but in those places winter is still winter, even if it was warm. Calling winter months summer is just strange...
But anyway, back to today. Since it was a Saturday, my family and I attended services in the morning.. We'd originally thought about going hiking in the afternoon but no one really wanted to do another long drive followed by more walking so we went to a museum instead (one nice thing about Wellington is that a lot of the museums are free). The Te Papa museum is pretty large and covers a very broad range of subjects, although they all relate to New Zealand. There was a section about marine life, complete with a very large fossil snail shell and the only colossal squid on display in the entire world. My picture of the squid isn't great because its size, the reflectivity of the display case, and the amount of people crowded around it, make it hard to photograph, but it was huge. Then there was the section on the Earth and tectonic activity, complete with this nifty ancient Chinese earthquake recorder. At the exhibit on New Zealand's wildlife I finally decided that I'm probably not going to get a good picture of a live kiwi on this trip so here's a picture of some stuffed ones that were on display instead. There were also big exhibits on the Maori (NZ's indigenous people) and the later British settlers and a collection of art by NZ artists. All in all, it was good museum.
That was pretty much it for the day. We walked around Wellington a little more, but didn't do anything special.

Random New Zealand Comment: Internet Access
It may not be all that interesting but it's worth noting if you're thinking of traveling to New Zealand. So far, I've yet to see a single hotel that offers free internet access. While you can pay for internet access, the prices tend to be rather high (average of $7-$10 (New Zealand dollars) for an hour and around $30+ for a day). Many places don't even offer an all day package and force you to buy an hour or two at a time. On top of that, most of the internet plans here, regardless of how much time you buy, place very strict limits on your bandwidth. It's more than enough to check your e-mail, but if you plan to be sending a bunch of photos, watching movies, downloading much of anything, or something like that, you could easily run out of bandwidth before your time is up. Fortunately, cities and larger towns have internet cafes which provide much more reasonable rates and some even allow you to bring your own laptop. But, when it comes down to it, it's probably best to plan on not being to get online all that much while you're here.

Day 13 (3rd): The Final Destination
With only a few days left on our New Zealand trip, my family headed to Tongariro National Park to do some hiking. It was a several hour drive from Wellington and we arrived in the early afternoon.
The park is way up in the mountains in the middle of nowhere. And I do mean in the middle of nowhere. The town we're staying in is really small and a good twenty minute or more drive from the next tiny town. On the bright side, the internet rates here are considerably cheaper than anywhere else we've stayed. Anyway, my dad didn't want to do anything big today (partly because of the time and partly because it's pretty cloudy and windy up here today) so we took a ninety minute hike to, you guessed it, a waterfall. It was a pleasant hike and the scenery was nice, nothing spectacular though. After that, my brother wanted to check out the chair lift a bit further up the mountain. Why a chair lift? Well, this place is a sky area in the winter and in the summer the lift takes hikers partway up the mountain so they can shave some time off of their hike. My brother wants to hike to the top of the mountain tomorrow but my dad doesn't like the look of the weather or the chair lift and wants to do a different hike so we'll see what happens.

Random New Zealand Comment: Sports
New Zealand's big sports are rugby (a British game that's somewhat similar to American football) and cricket. I don't really get cricket. It vaguely resembles baseball and my brother tells me that games can go on for up to five whole days, but that's about all I know. Soccer is also pretty popular here (no surprise there) and, though there aren't any pro teams as far as I know, there's some TV stations here that broadcast US basketball, football, and probably baseball (though I'm not sure cause it's not the right season). Outside of the big sports, there's tons of water sports, extreme sports, golf, and the like, which is no big surprise since NZ seems to be a very active outdoors oriented country.

Day 14 (4th): Change of Plans
In the end, we didn't do any hiking today. Come morning, it was raining fairly hard and, even if it let up in the afternoon like it was supposed to, the trails would be way too muddy for hiking.  Since there wasn't much to do in the area besides hike, we changed our plans one last time and decided to head to Auckland a day early, figuring that, even if the weather was bad there too, there'd be plenty of things to do in the city, at least after we got the several hour drive out of the way.
As it turned out, the weather in Auckland was pretty good. My brother, ever the sports fan, suggested that we go watch a pro cricket game that was taking place today so we went and saw the Auckland Aces play the Canterbury Wizards. The normal stadium is undergoing renovations or something so the game was held in a college field. In my opinion, the whole thing had much more of a high school game vibe than a pro sports one. Fairly small crowd, pretty casual, etc. I learned a little bit more about how cricket itself is played, but this isn't really the place to detail the rules. If you're curious, you can find them online easily enough. Suffice it to say that I was correct, cricket is something like baseball, though it seems to have less tension, scale, and strategy (no offense to cricket fans, that's just my assessment from the little bit I've seen of the game). Doesn't look like a bad game but I personally found it a lot less interesting to watch then a baseball game, and I don't think that watching baseball is all that captivating to begin with.
After we'd had our fill of cricket, we walked around in a shopping mall and by Auckland's harbor and that was about it.

Day 15 (5th): All Around Auckland
As this was our last full day in Auckland, my parents wanted to fit in as much stuff as we could. We split up for the first part of the day, with my mom and brother checking out some shopping streets while my dad and I went to an aquarium / Antarctic museum. It was a nice place, if a little small, with a large penguin colony and numerous types of marine life on display, as well as some exhibits on Antarctic exploration. My dad and I walked around the nearby bay a bit after that and then met up with my mom and brother.
Next up we got a quick lunch and fed some birds (while also watching them feed each other) then spent the next few hours walking around various shopping streets and other areas of Auckland. Not terribly exciting (at least in my opinion) but we did end up finding some good game and anime stores. Nothing like what you can find in Japan, of course, but pretty cool for not being in Japan. Finally, we finished the day off with a trip up the Sky Tower, which offers some impressive views of Auckland, and got a good supper at a Northern Africa restaurant. The trip isn't quite done yet (we're still planning to make a stop or two tomorrow before flying home), but it's getting close. I'll be sure to include my final thoughts on New Zealand once everything is finished.

Random New Zealand Comment: Island
NZ has two main islands, unoriginally named the North and South Islands. My family spent our entire trip on the North Island (and saw the vast majority of it). The North Island has the larger cities such as Auckland and Wellington and is where the main airport is. The South Island is less populated and is said to be more rugged and a lot more scenic, though I can't really comment since I haven't been there.

Day 16 (6th): Heading Home
Though it was the day of our flight home, the plane didn't leave till late afternoon so my parents decided to take the opportunity to hit up one last sightseeing destination, the Auckland Botanic Gardens. The gardens were pretty large and had a wide variety of plants including lots of nice flowers. Not the best botanical gardens I've ever been to, but certainly worth a visit if you're in the area.
We walked around the gardens for a while then got lunch and walked around some more in a nearby mall before heading to the airport. Plenty of waiting, three flights, and a whole bunch of security checks later we made it back to Arizona...minus three suitcases that disappeared somewhere in LA. Fortunately, the airlines found and returned them the next morning, marking the end of our New Zealand trip.

New Zealand - Final Thoughts:
(Note that everything I say is about the North island, since that's the only one I've been to.) New Zealand is a very nice country. While it lacks the "exotic" feel of the Asian and many European countries, it's a pretty place and there's plenty of cultural diversity to be found in the cities. NZ is pretty clean, pretty safe, and fairly easy to get around (assuming you can manage to drive on the left side of the road). There's some unique plants and birds (though you may have to go to a zoo to see most of them) and the scenery is excellent. While there isn't much you couldn't find somewhere in the US (rolling hills, ancient forests, mountain valleys, beaches, rocky coasts, etc), NZ packs it all into a much smaller (and thereby much more easily accessible) area. The cities are nice (and tend to have a large variety of restaurants) but, when it comes down to it, NZ is a place to go for outdoor activities, be they things like hiking and camping or more beach related stuff. If that sounds like your idea of a good vacation, than NZ is a great place to visit.

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