So it’s been a little while since my last post, but trying to find wifi while on a two week road trip is, as we learned, not quite easy. As I sit here in Mrs. O’s cafe thinking about the trip it becomes pretty clear that too much happened in these two weeks for only one post, so I’ve decided to break the trip down into two separate posts. That being said, ladies and gentleman, boys and girls, sit back, relax, and bear with me as I try and explain the best two weeks of my life with some of the best people I’ve meet.
For most of us doing the study abroad program at Lincoln the only real exploring we had done so far had been centered around the South Island, simply because of convenience. When the reality of having a two week break in the middle of the semester set in it became pretty clear to most of us that experiencing the North Island was the only way to go, and what better way to do so than with a few good mates and a Jucy campervan. When the day finally came to leave we were five people with a van, stack of maps, and rough outline of where we wanted to go.
I know for me personally the trip started off with a bit of a rough patch. About 5 minutes after landing in Auckland with Matt I got a call from home to tell me that my grandfather had just passed away. Before leaving for New Zealand back in July we all knew that there was a very good possibility of that being the last time I’d see him just because of how sick he had been in the months leading up to take off, but I still wasn’t prepared for the news. Part of me is glad that the trip was happening when it was because it would keep me busy over the next week, but at the same time it kind of sucked because the lack of wifi access made it really difficult to talk to any of my family. I think it’s safe to say that right then and there at the airport was the most homesick I’d felt the entire time that I’d been in New Zealand. I am really thankful though to have had Matt, Malia, Kelly, and Peter around all week because they did a really great job of keeping my mind off of everything, which I can’t thank them enough for and I’m not sure they have any idea how thankful for them being there I am. So with that kind of news to start off a trip Matt and I decided that rather than hanging around the airport for 3 hours or so waiting for the others we’d go pick up Patty, our camper van, and go find something fun to do. It wasn’t until the rental company handed us the keys and I was sitting in the drivers seat did it hit me that holy crap we were really about to start this adventure. I thought I was going to pee my pants.
Now by this point in the semester I had only driven 2 other times, and they were the day before. So, needless to say Matt and I were both a little freaked out when we put Patty in drive and pulled out of the parking lot and on to the left side of the road. We had no real clue where we wanted to go or what we wanted to do, so we just took some random turns and roads and ended up finding Ambry Regional Park. The great thing about New Zealand is that almost everywhere you look there is some really cool landform or stunning landscape to see. That’s pretty much Ambry Park in a nutshell. We spent the next two and a half hours walking around looking at lambs, climbing on rocks, finding “frothy lava”, and starting a trip tradition of sitting on well placed benches and admiring this amazing country that we get the chance to explore.
Once we had our fun at the park it was time to pick up the others from the airport and start on our way. The first place that our journey would take us was to Pam’s house. Pam is this wonderful old lady who went to high school with Malia’s grandfather. Small world huh? When she found out that Malia was going to be in Auckland she invited us all over for some tea and cake. We sat and chatted with her about the things we hoped to see and do on our trip and she told us about growing up with Malia’s grandfather in Hawaii. When it was finally time to leave she took us over to her daughter’s house where we were allowed to park Patty for the night, which seeing as it was dark and none of us really knew what we were doing yet was a life saver! I think it was when Pam said bye and the 5 of us were left in a driveway with a camper that it really hit us that we were actually about to travel the entire North Island in a camper van for the next two weeks. We had a lot of fun that first night playing cards and talking about what we were most excited for in the upcoming weeks. Now we knew that it was going to be a bit cramped trying to sleep 5 people and all of our bags in a van meant for 4, but man was that first night rough! After talking to everyone the next morning I’m not sure any of us got much sleep at all. Thankfully though Pam’s daughter was super nice and let us use their shower, so that made the morning better. After we had the bags packed in and our morning coffee, which would turn out to be a necessity by the end of the trip, we were off to Waitomo to see the glowworm caves!
I’m pretty sure that the ride to the glowworm caves was one of my favorites of the trip. Matt was driving and Malia was his navigator, so that left Peter, Kelly, and me in the back for a good two hours. It was your typical road trip day filled with Egyptian Rat Race, Uno, Never have I ever, and oh yeah Peter trying to braid my hair. By the time we got to the caves we had an braid train going in the back and Malia and Matt cracking up in the front trying to get used to driving Patty.
Waitomo was a cute little town that consisted of a few neighborhoods, a rugby field, and the caves. We signed up to do our cave tours with the Starlight company and before long were climbing into a van with an Aussie family and Norm, our lovely tour guide. Norm had been living in the Waitomo area for years and spent many of them helping to build the infrastructure in the caves so that the tours could walk through and experience the views. Having spent so much time down in the caves Norm was really knowledgable about how the caves formed, events that happened in them, the different ways in and out, as well as the best places to see the glowworms. After walking through the first cave for about 15 minutes we reached a stream and a boat. We were told to get in the boat and turn off our headlamps. Before we knew it our eyes were adjusting and above us was a sight similar only to a clear night sky full of stars. It was simply amazing. We spent the next twenty or so minutes going up and down the stream mesmerized by the glowing worms above us. I have always had a weird obsession with the stars, and going through those caves was the closest to seeing the stars on a clear night that I’ve ever experienced, which I find kind of ironic seeing as we were underground.
Once we finished exploring the first cave we made our way to cave number two. Another fun tidbit about New Zealand’s North Island, it’s a pretty small island compared to home. So, that being said, it should have come to no surprise to any of us when we ran into the Brazilian study abroad students from Lincoln at the second cave. We all got a kick out of that and would later on laugh about it even more as we bumped into other Lincoln groups during these weeks. As cool as the first cave was, I personally liked the second cave the best (at least the structure of the cave and the rock formations. The glowworms in the first cave were the best of all). As we were walking through this cave Norm once again turned out to be a really cool and knowledgeable tour guide. He told us about the different ways water formed the cave, a mud event that flooded the caves years ago, and showed us Moa bones that were discovered years before. All in all I think it’s safe to say that we had a pretty great cave experience thanks to Norm. When we made our way out of the second cave and back into town though it was time to move on South to Tongariro National Park which was a good two hours away from Waitomo.
After spending the night at a campground in the park we woke up ready to hike! Two things we had all agreed on before leaving for the trip was that we wanted to see some of the film locations from the Lord of the Rings movies as well as do some hiking, so why not kill two birds with one stone? One of the best short walks in New Zealand is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing due to the beautiful landscape around the volcano an adventure associated with doing the hike. Oh yeah, and it’s also the location of Mt. Doom!!! This particular hike was probably my favorite part of our entire trip. We didn’t have the proper equipment to do the alpine part of the treck, but we did decide to do the Lower and Upper Tama Lakes. The first part of the treck is pretty easy. We were walking on relatively flat surfaces with Mt. Doom in front of us, beautiful snowcapped mountains to our right, and open plaines with a range in the background to our left.
It took a bit over an hour to get to the first Tama lake, but then again we did stop to take a bunch of pictures and throw some snowballs at each other. When we made it to the Lower Tama lake it was, as per usual, beautiful. We hung out there for a few minutes and then started to make our way to the Upper lake. That was the tricky part of the treck. Up until this point the trail had been mostly flat with a few inclines, but to get from the Lower to Upper lakes was straight up an incline made of loose little rocks and pebbles. That made it a bit more difficult because anytime you thought you were gaining ground you were really sliding down the hill a bit too. I also had a small issue with this part of the hike just because of my asthma. I really hate when it gives me problems during hikes and whatnot, so needless to say that about halfway up the hill I started to get a tad bit mad and agitated, but after awhile we finally made it to the top and man was it worth it! The views were incredible and so we decided it was the perfect spot to sit down and have some lunch with another really cool hiker that we ran into on our way. After lunch we spent some time climbing on rock and down some of the hillsides before making our way back down.
The way down, as expected, didn’t take us quite as long as the way up and before long we were back at the bottom of the mountain, but rather than going the same way back to Patty we decided to take a different path and go find a waterfall. Oh, and of course on the way down had to act out some scenes from the third Lord of the Rings movie.
When we made it to the waterfall we decided it was a good idea to climb around for half an hour or so and see how close we could get for some pictures. After leaving there though the rest of the walk about to Patty was simply that, a walk. As much fun as it is to climb up to high elevations and test your limits on hikes, it is still always a lot of fun to just stroll through some woods on a walk with some friends getting a chance to chat and just hang out. After finishing the hike and finally making our way back to the van we made ourselves some dinner and coffee and set out for Lake Taupo, 2 hours away.
By the time we got the Taupo it had already gotten pretty dark and was starting to get late, so we though it best to find a campsite and just explore around more then next day. Before leaving Tongariro we called the information center and found a really great campsite called Reids Farm, and I sure am glad we did. We spent several nights over the course of our trip at our friends houses, outside of hostels, and in driveways, but it was Reids Farm that we all seemed to like the best. The campsite, while being free, was right next to the river, had a lot of really cool ducks (that apparently I shouldn’t have fed), and a really good climbing tree. It very quickly became our home base and felt like home by the time we left. That first night there though we were all really tired and decided that it was probably a good idea to just play some cards and hang out before catching some sleep. The next morning when we finally got a chance to look around the campsite we knew we had picked a good spot. Malia and I decided it would be a great idea to eat some breakfast and read in the nearby tree, Kelly was chasing ducks around taking pictures of them, Matt was taking it easy because he hadn’t been feeling well the night before, and good old Peter had a nice little fall into some mud trying to make his coffee! Overall a good morning.
Taupo was the point in our trip were we decided that taking it easy for a day or so wasn’t such a bad idea. We had only been on the move for 4 days or so by this point, but it felt like we had been going for a lot longer! I think it was the combination of always being on the move and having something to do as well as still not being used to sleeping in a van with 4 other people that drained us as much as it did. We started Taupo off add we did every morning, by finding a cafe for some much needed coffee. After finishing up there and looking at our maps trying to figure out what it was we wanted to do and see next we found the next best thing to a cafe, a library with free wifi! Needless to say the next hour or so of our time was spent letting our parents know we were alive and talking to friends from back home. Personally, I was really happy about finding wifi because with everything happening back home it was really difficult not having talked to my parents since Auckland. When I called my mom and dad were with my yaya at her house trying to get things packed away and ready for the funeral, so getting to talk to all three of them at once was really nice. Up until that point on the trip I had been doing pretty well keeping busy and trying not to think about it, but avoiding the situation didn’t make it just disappear. Talking to my mom and dad helped, but talking to my yaya was incredibly difficult. As much as everyone kept telling me not to feel bad about not being home for anything and as much as she tried to reassure me of that it’s impossible not to. At one point I started crying and I couldn’t tell if it was because I was upset with the situation or with myself for being half way around the world. As nice as it was to talk to them, the one person I still hadn’t gotten to talk to though was my brother Sal. He never does well with things like this, so he was the person that I wanted to talk to most to make sure he was alright, but he didn’t have his phone with him so that never happened. It was really difficult to leave that library because I wasn’t sure when we’d get wifi again and the thought of not knowing when I could check in with my mom or try and call Sal again really upset me. Thankfully, The Patty crew was great about the whole thing and before long we were on the move again. We spent most of that day walking around the town and checking out some of the shops along the main drag. Malia really wanted to going fishing while we were at the lake, so when she found out about a really great place to go from a local she was set on spending the rest of her day there. You know I don’t know what it is about Kiwi’s and not liking to make visible signs but I swear finding that fishing spot was one of the most difficult things we did on our entire trip! After dropping her off Matt, Peter, Kelly, and I decided to take a nice stroll around the lake and go out for dinner in town.
After dinner and picking Malia up again we decided to just stay at Reids Farm for another night rather than try and drive to Gisborne that night. That night we spent the same as every other, hanging out and talking in Patty and getting to know each other a bit better than before. Other than coffee and everything being 2 hours away we had another trend of the trip, not being able to get up and moving by the right time. Ever. When we finally decided it was time to get up we were behind schedule, so I ended up rolling straight out of bed and into the drivers seat to get us into town to shower (which we had been really lucky about the entire trip!). The only issue I found with being half asleep in the drivers seat is the fact that in New Zealand they drive on the left hand side of the road but sleepy Alex registers diving on the right. Thankfully Peter noticed almost immediately and called me out on it, and everyone else was still in bed so they had absolutely no idea. Well, that is until Peter decided that it would make for a funny story and told the others the next day. I still don’t hear the end of that one. After that little driving error though the rest of the day went pretty well. Remember how I mentioned earlier how the North Island is pretty small compared to the States? Well it is and I did, so surprise surprise when we run into Luke, another Lincoln study abroad student, on our way to get coffee. Matt, Kelly, Malia and Peter are all really awesome, but it was still nice to run into someone else we knew and catch up. He decided to drive his car up to the North Island and drive around by himself, stopping in any city that looked like it was worth stopping in. He was telling us about the wine tasting he had been doing the day before and some of the interesting things he’d passed on his travels so far. We all found that really helpful too because where he was coming from was where we were about to head off to. After chatting with him for a bit and drinking our coffee we were on the road headed for Gisborne. Along the way we needed to find a place to pull over and make lunch and, very much like what happened with Ambry Park, found one of the coolest little walks of the trip. What started off as a quick break turned into an hour or so hike through some woods to a waterfall. It’s the little things like this that exist just off the side of the road that make me love New Zealand so much. It’s as if everywhere you look there is something beautiful to see and fun to do.
One of my favorite things about living on Farm Road with everyone is how close you become with your flatmates and neighbors. It really is it’s own little community. So it was no surprise when my neighbor Sean offered to open his home to us while we were traveling around for a few nights. We got to Gisborne a little after dark and right around dinner time, so we decided to go grab some food in the main town area while we waited for Sean and his family to meet us after they were done with tea. We had some time to kill and decided to take a walk down to the beach and hang out around the water. Now when Sean said that we could come and stay with him we were expecting to pull Patty up in their driveway and sleep in there like with Pam’s daughter, so when his parents said that we were more than welcome to spend the night on the couches in the living room and spread out on the floor we were quite happy! We had spent every night so far of the trip cramped in the camper van with no room to really move. It was the best feeling in the world to sprawl out on the floor! We were all out cold that night, especially Malia who had barely slept at all since leaving Lincoln. The only thing that made the already wonderful situation any better was Ruby, Sean’s amazing dog who became my best friend! Ruby was this little ball of energy who loved each and every one of us because we would pet and play with her. I could have easily spent all day playing with this little ball of sunshine! However, there were things to do and places to see. The weather in Gisborne while we were there wasn’t all that great, but we drove around and saw some stuff anyways. The first place tour guide Sean decided to take us was to a pretty cool pier about an hour or so away from his house. We really only spent a half an hour or so there though because the rain started a few minutes after we arrived. From there we went and got some ice cream and then went to our first wine tasting. The tasting was really interesting and a lot of fun. I think Kelly and Peter liked it the most though because of their wine appreciation paper they are taking this semester. It was pretty fun sitting next to them listening to the different things they had to say about the taste and colors of the wines though. Matt, Sean and I all got white wine while Kelly and Peter got reds. Going into the tasting I really thought I was more of a white wine fan, but by the end came to the conclusion that red was the only way to go. We went at a really great time too because an acoustic performer had just started playing and she was quite talented. We ended up spending a little over an hour there enjoying the wine, talking about all that we had done, and listening to the guitar. Overall it was a really great experience and I am really glad we had the chance to go. The man who worked there and was presenting the different wines to us was really cool as well. He knew a lot about what he was talking about and looked exactly like I’d imagine someone doing wine tastings would look like with the fancy mustache, hat, and all.
After we left there we made our way back to Sean’s house where his mom made all of us dinner. I’m not sure about the others because we never really talked about it, but that helped a bit with any homesickness I’d been feeling. I normally don’t get homesick and I think the only reason I had been was because of everything with my pap, but for whatever reason I had been and staying with Sean and his family helped. There’s nothing quite like going to someone’s home and having a home cooked meal with their family. It had been a while since any of us got to do that, and it was really nice. It was easy to sit around the table and talk about how the semester had been going, what all we still had ahead of us, and what it’s like for them to live in Gisborne. We ended up spending quite a bit of time just sitting around talking to him and his family about anything and everything honestly. We even ended up watching a movie with them after dinner. When it was finally time to head to bed we had all had a home cooked meal, showered, baked banana bread, and had a pretty great night just hanging out and laughing with each other. The next day it was time for us to move on again, but of course not before playing with Sean’s sheep and cows! You’d think by now we would all be used to seeing sheep and cows everywhere, but that is just one thing that never gets old! After cleaning up all of our stuff from their living rooms and packing Patty up for the second half of our trip we said Goodbye and thank you to Sean and his family and were off again.