Faces of Adrenaline

Once again, here I was, watching the others scream as they plummeted down in an inflatable craft. We were standing in a viewing platform in the middle of the bush, fantails and tuis zipping around the palms and ferns that shaded us from the clouded sun. The roar of the river drifted up along with the screams.

Each boat of six was led by a guide and all were accompanied by two kayaking escorts. The Kaituna Cascades are rated at a Class 5, the highest level of difficulty that is still considered nonlethal. Very few of those aboard had been rafting before.

The seven of us who had chosen not to raft watched as everyone else suited up on the other side of the river: wet suits and sweaters, shoes and helmets, topped off with a life jacket. We laughed as they attempted to practice on dry land, taking informal bets as to which boat will flip.

Eventually, we left the nervous and excited rafters for the bush trails along the river so we could witness their descent. With the kayaks leading the way, the boats floated along, bumping along the tumbling waters. Soon they flew down the waterfalls, briefly dipping into the cold river before popping out to reveal the soaked and shocked riders.

To our slight disappointment, no one flipped. Two did fall out, though, toppling out of the raft before anyone noticed. As they were being rescued by the kayaks, we peered over the outlook’s railings to try to distinguish the faces of the overboard rafters amongst the waves. (I shouted and laughed when I discovered that one of those poor souls was Kirsten.)

At the end, the guides took the rafts to a smaller waterfall so that they could dip, Titanic-style into the river. I got some fantastic photos of their expressions.

As the rafters dried off, we observers went out for a coffee at a local café. The bus then picked us up and we all began our long drive back to Auckland. As the others talked about the waters, I dozed. I didn’t mind not going out onto the river. Their faces and screams were enough entertainment.

Fast as Hell in Rotorua

That morning someone went on a jog and got lost. We couldn’t wait because we had a scheduled tour to keep. So we left (after calling them to let them know). Her friends decided stayed behind in Rotorua to wait for her to take a taxi into town while the rest of us went on to our next activity: luging.

Eventually, sporting brightly-colored helmets, we all lined up to at the beginning of the tracks. Excitement was high as we watched others begin their decent. You see, luging in New Zealand takes place on a concrete track in a hard plastic cart, winding through trees without a snowflake in sight.

When I finally found myself in one of those plastic carts, gravity starting to pull me along down the track, the adrenaline begin to pump. I ended up flying through the corners and speeding down the hills. If it was a video game, flames would’ve been coming out of my tracks, and while racing isn’t allowed, I’m sure the resemblance to Mario Kart has certainly tempted people do to so (or at least throw banana peels).

I quickly got separated from the group after a pit stop in the bathroom. So I completed two of my rides alone, enjoying the wind in my hair as I whipped down the hill. I caught up with part of the group on the last of our five runs (Yvonne sped past me with an evil grin on the advanced course), but others were missing. Afterwards we found out that they had sacrificed their last run. We were running late and they were trying to make up for the lost time this morning, but the word hadn’t gotten to us. We now had barely 30 minutes for lunch before our scheduled tour.

We scarfed down a something eatable at the closest café in Rotorua, met with those left behind, and headed out to Hell’s Gate. Despite being named by George Bernard Shaw, the hot pool park is the only consistently owned Maori hot pools in the area. Consequently, Hell’s Gate greeted us with an image of the Maori volcanic god and the local tribe’s ancestors. Considering BU’s insistence on giving us a Maori perspective, we were not surprised to encounter these Maori tikis.

Our Maori guide welcomed us with the customary “Haere mai!” before explaining the tikis and handing out a collection of staffs to a few in our group, dubbing them temporary chiefs and chiefesses.

With the formalities out of the way, he led us into the hot pools. We weaved our way around the steaming vents, boiling ponds of acid, and sulfur outcroppings, stopping occasionally to listen to bit of science and Maori medical history. The Maori had many uses for the mud and water of the hot pools, with unique stories explaining everything, until, of course, the Europeans came in with their science and modern medicines. Today, like in much of New Zealand, a hybrid exists: Maori still tell their stories and scientists still study the waters but both acknowledge and utilize the other.

We passed the largest mud volcano in the Southern hemisphere, the largest hot waterfall in the Southern hemisphere, a hot pool naturally shaped like Australia, and the most expensive mud in the world. Our guide handed each of us a small sample of the white mud, said to have countless medicinal and beautification properties. We cheerfully rubbed it on our arms and faces, turning some of us into white-faced clowns.

Afterwards, the appointed chiefs and chiefesses played a stick game for the prize of a mud mask, while our guide explained the importance of sharing stories in Maori culture and how much it meant to him to have a chance to share his culture’s tales. He told us how the sulfur in the air of Hell’s Gate has given him asthma, but as long as he can get inhalers, he will continue to share the land with visitors.

Feeling touched by the weight of his passion, we filed out of the park and into the swimmable hot pools. We didn’t last long in the steaming opaque waters. The heat quickly drove most of us out and into the showers. Exhausted and damp, we eventually all made it back onto the bus and on the road back to Blue Lake.

Gathering Around Lakes and Zorbs

The sun was warming our backs as sheep quietly grazed on the sloping pastures and clouds floated along the blindingly blue sky. We watched from the viewing platform at the bottom and listened to the muffled screams of the others in my program. And there they came, two at a time, rocketing down the slicked grass, both trapped within a giant, inflated ball. At the end, they would slop out of the zorb, wet from the water also inside and thoroughly dazed.

Only a few of us in the BU program, including myself, had decided not to go zorbing, electing instead to enjoy the weather and watch the rest throw themselves into a human hamster ball. I had fun trying to guess from a distance who was in which ball and attempting to capture some of their faces as they were reborn into the world. Welcome (back) to New Zealand!

It was our last trip together and probably the last time some of us would see each other before the group splinters during the last few weeks of the program. Our program directors wanted to make it count, and zorbing was just the prologue.

The setting: Rotorua, Maori for “second lake” as it was the second lake a major Maori chief discovered. We glimpsed it when we came into town, sparking in the sunshine as people gathered for the weekend market. But we were only released into town for lunch, before we had to rush back to the bus to head to our accommodation on another lake.

Blue Lake sat quietly away from the town center; it’s clear, blue waters situated in between hills of New Zealand bush and Californian pines. Blue Lake is one of the dozen or so lakes in the Rotorua area, but one of the few with a holiday park gracing its banks.

Being Labor Day weekend, the park was full of families, campers, and mountain bikers. A handful waved hello as we trudged up to our lodging with our luggage. We soon split up into our cliques to fill four cabins, our social networks having already been formed. It occurred to me then I wouldn’t miss most of these people. We’d say hello to each other on the street once back in America, but we’d be like the strangers in the holiday park, connected by a (past) location but not much else.

The day was still young, so our guide (the man behind our tour of Auckland and the Bay of Islands) gathered some of us for a quick walk/hike around the lake. We splintered once again as we moved through the rustling pines and palms, Yvonne ending up with me in the back, taking pictures.

We all ate our group dinner of grilled sausages and tossed salad back at the holiday park, naturally sitting according to cabin. We munched and talked in the growing, unseasonable chill. Most were exhausted, so after desert of ice cream and afghan cookies, people quickly settled back into their cabins for the night.

I ended up with Yvonne on the lake’s beach, instead. Wrapped in blankets and watching the millions of stars and faintly the glowing Milky Way glimmer above us, we talked about random things until we could no longer feel our toes. We knew then, that it was time to call it a night.

Gardens and Hobbits

I planned it. I can still remember the conversation with the Assistant Director of the BU program. We were coming back from the Bay of Islands and I mentioned Hobbiton. Somehow that exchange ended up with me agreeing to research and plan a group trip to the Middle Earth set.

After the small headache that was coordinating a list of names and going back and forth with the tour company, here I was, six weeks later, standing on the curb in the early morning sun with 20 other people waiting for the tour bus. It was 15 minutes late.

The bus eventually pulled up to the sidewalk, out jumped this man with a white five o’clock shadow and a Pokémon hat. He apologized in a strong London accent and explained why he was late. You see, I booked the Hobbiton day trip without the customary morning stop at Hamilton Gardens. (It was the only way they could give me a discount.) However, our driver was now informing me that we would have to go to Hamilton Gardens anyway because they couldn’t get us in to Hobbiton at an earlier time. Having no idea why they couldn’t work this out sooner or at least delay the departure time to adjust for the later entry slot, I said nothing, nodded, and got in to the bus with everyone else. There wasn’t much I could do at that point but look out the window and watch as Auckland receded into the sunlight.

With the A/C and random music blasting we trundled through the country side to Hamilton Gardens. There was a reason why I decided not to include the gardens on the trip (besides the money). I had of course looked it up while planning the tour and learned about the attraction’s various gardens able “transport” visitors to dozens of places around the world. But why would I want to go around the world when I am already in New Zealand? I want to see New Zealand that’s why I’m here. I knew others felt the same way, so that was why I didn’t feel bad leaving the gardens off the trip.

But here we were anyway. We were lucky it was a nice day. I don’t think we would’ve been all that happy if it wasn’t. And so we split up and aimlessly wondered around the shrubs and trees and flowers. The sunlight filtered through the leaves as we were indeed transported to China, Japan, Italy, India, England, California, and Maori New Zealand. It was a bit surreal to be honest. I would walk through these gates and there I was, suddenly on the west coast of the US with a picture of Marilyn Monroe overlooking a pool shaded by American oaks. I would then walk down a different path and I was unexpectedly in the Forbidden City, bamboo shielding me from the outside world.

It got me thinking about the different identities imposed upon the New Zealand landscape: how the sloping pastures we passed on the way there weren’t natural, that the English had burned down the forests and planted grass to reshape this country into an idyllic “Little Britain.” These gardens were just a miniature example of the transformations that took place on this land. And then I thought about where we were going and how we were all excited for another imposed identity, the equally fictional Middle Earth….I knew then that I had taken too many social science classes and I was thinking too hard and that I should just enjoy the sunlight.

We wandered about the gardens long enough to get bored, unable to really appreciate things in our excitement for Hobbiton. We stopped in Cambridge for a cheap meat pie for lunch (the irony wasn’t lost on me) before driving a little farther to our goal.

Dozens of buses and hundreds of people crowded The Shire’s Rest outside of Hobbiton. The nearby sheep-covered green hills stood against the blue sky, creating such a perfect picture that it didn’t seem quite real. Because we were with a tour company, we could go down to The Shire™ on our own bus with our own tour guide instead of on a huge, official Hobbiton group with 50+ other random strangers.

Once our time slot rolled around, we hopped back on to our bus, picked up our guide, and trundled through more sheep-covered hills to reach The Shire™. Our guide explained how and why the location scout picked this place to be the heart of Middle Earth while we all squealed at the cuteness of the lambs.

We hopped off the bus at the entrance, filed through some hedges and entered another world…well at least an artificial filmic world: Bright flowers and round doorways, miniature front lawns and dozens of gapping tourists. With the sun and without the tourists one could almost imagine they were in the actual film. It was meant to be like that. Everything before us was reconstructed for the Hobbit trilogy (and later tourism) as the original Hobbiton was built out of plastic and foam and carted away after filming was done.

Our guide quickly gathered in front of a hobbit hole, before turning to us and asking, “How many have seen at least part of the Lord of the Rings series? How ‘bout the Hobbit trilogy?”

Most of us raised our hands.

“That’s pretty good. Here at Hobbiton, we estimate that about 30-40% of our visitors have never seen a single one of the movies.”

Now that fact boggled the mind. I mean, I knew why. Hobbiton has become so iconic that it’s like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower. Still, if you knew you were going to New Zealand, a place once jokingly called “Middle Zealand,” then wouldn’t you want to take the time to watch at least one of the films? And if you didn’t know anything, wouldn’t you find this place a little boring?

It was a fairly small location, with most of the 40+ hobbit holes only reaching most of people’s chests. In fact, many of them didn’t even end up on camera, just stood off in the distance in case the shot ever veered in that direction. Even so, if you looked closely, each hobbit hole was meticulously and uniquely decorated with carved wood trimmings, painted mail boxes, and props of everyday life. There was nothing behind the doors however, our guide explained, opening up one and revealing a dirt and plaster lined crawl space to prove to us. Nevertheless, we all stopped to pose for pictures in the doorway.

Our guide did her job of guiding us through the set, spouting out along the way stories from behind the scenes and tales of tourist stealing things and dropping their bags. She reminded us that we were lucky to be here today. For the last week, and the projected week ahead, rain was in the forecast.

We eventually made it to the top of the highest hill which overlooked the blooming gardens, vibrant grass, and hobbit doors to nowhere. And there was the main attraction: Bag End. Sitting in the shadow of a fake tree (Weta Workshop’s handy work again), the house’s exterior looked like it had sprung out of a postcard. Decorated with a “no admittance except on party business” sign, the gate kept the tourists from the iconic green door. That didn’t stop us from taking dozens of pictures as our guide continued to reveal various truths behind the movie magic. (Like how Bag End, like the rest of the hobbit holes, doesn’t have an interior and that all the scenes inside actually took place in two studios in Wellington: one for the hobbits and another for Gandalf.)

After stopping at a few more hobbit holes, we headed down the hill and out towards the Green Dragon for our complimentary micro-brewed pint. Construction was going on behind the pub—an expansion our guide explained. The building is an event center, and during the summer, she told us, every night there is something going on in the there.

She left us then, to relax in the comfortable darkness of the pub before showing up 30 minutes later to escort us back to the bus. Our driver greeted with a smile and greasy chip breath, and we piled on once again for the long ride back to Auckland. Everyone fell asleep in content silence and I knew, despite the hiccups, my plan had panned out well.

Weta’s Wellington

Wellington greeted us on Sunday morning with rain. The steady patter followed us out as we searched for a late breakfast. We lingered in a café as the clouds emptied their load onto unhappy passerbys. During a break in the downpour, we decided to risk our chances and venture out into the world. We split up then. Yvonne and I went off to geek out and Kirsten dived into the theater to escape the weather.

The bus Yvonne and I took trundled through the streets of Wellington and out to the suburbs. The windswept Wellington sign wave a sweet hello to us as we passed the airport. Soon a series of short, white houses with fenced in lawns lined the streets, the quintessential “Pavlova Paradise.” It wasn’t long before we reached our destination.

Weta Workshop and Weta Digital are responsible for the creation of many of films most iconic characters: From everything in the Lord of the Rings movies to the latest rendition of King Kong to the alien creatures and landscape of Avatar to the Planet of the Apes prequels to the more recent Pete’s Dragon. They physically and/or digitally craft entire worlds out of pixels and plastic. And being the film majors and major nerds that Yvonne and I are, we were excited to see the place where all the physical effects were made.

Thankfully the Trolls were made of concrete. Photo credit: Yvonne Corbett.
Thankfully the Trolls were made of concrete. Photo credit: Yvonne Corbett.

Trolls guarded the entrance to the Weta Cave and snarled at the crowding visitors. Inside was the gift shop, chalk full of figurines, models, hats, T-shirts, books, and other knick-knacks from some of the most famous movies and TV shows they’ve had a hand in bringing to life (mainly the LOTR series and the Thunderbirds TV show remake). Prints of the concept drawings floated above our heads and hand-made or recreated props from some of their projects lived in glass cases in the corner. It was cramped in that tiny space as people huddled around the evidence of movie magic.

Having booked our Behind-the-Scenes tour before we left Auckland, we picked up our tickets before filing outside behind our (good looking) tour guide to one of the warehouses behind the cave. We gathered at the entrance area as our guide explained that we were about to see real props from their movies and therefore no pictures were allowed. However, as one of the artist that worked to help create them, he could answer any questions that we had about the process. And from there we entered.

It was another cramped space covered in set pieces, costumes, and props: everything from the models of heads to suits of armor to various types of weaponry. Using a gun from District 9 as an example, our guide took us step by step through the crafting process, revealing along the way the sad truth that 90% of props on screen are really just made of plastic. Further on we went and more and more props were revealed to us: Hobbit feet behind glass. A Halo car parked in the corner. Sauron’s armor standing along the wall. A demonic bunny glaring from behind.

Gollum also greets visitors at the Weta Cave.
Gollum also greets visitors at the Weta Cave.

As we looped around the section of the warehouse, our guide explained in more detail the painstaking work that went into every creation, some of which would never be on screen or only appear in the final edit for a few seconds. (Peter Jackson was particularly finicky.) The tour ended with a chat with another creative on the Weta Workshop team. Chilling out, working on his own personal project, the artist energetically elaborated on our guide’s information and answered our questions.

When we left the cave, the clouds were breaking and we celebrated with a cornetto ice cream cone before heading back to the bus stop. We met up again with Kirsten once back in the city center. There was one more stop we had to make before we left Wellington: the Museum of New Zealand or, as it’s more commonly known, the Te Papa Museum. It’s a state-of-the-art, massive multi-story complex that covers just about everything you would want to know about New Zealand from its ecology to its history to its indigenous population to its art. And we had only two and a half hours to explore it before closing time.

My energy was severely waning at that point. I had been battling a sinus headache all day, and the fighting had zapped my energy. The intricately designed lights and sounds and displays of the museum overwhelmed me, and I was only able to take a small bit of in even though I wondered through every exhibit.

The final solider loomed over paper poppies placed by visitors.
The final solider in the exhibit loomed over paper poppies placed by visitors.

However, I couldn’t ignore their WWI display. Gallipoli: The Scale of War covered the day-by-day carnage of New Zealand’s most famous military engagement. A running timeline snaked along the floor (complete with a red cross for every kiwi to die on that day) through displays, placards, miniatures, models, historical videos, and first-hand accounts of the nearly six month campaign against the Turks. The information focused on the personal tales of the soldiers (both Pakeha and Maori) and the doctors and nurses that walked the battlefields, centering on bigger-than-life models of a handful of everyday participants. Here was Weta’s handwork again. Our guide at the cave had explained that every pore had to be hand-carved and each air implanted one by one. It was hard not to be affected by the power of it all.

When we stepped into the evening, the sun was once again cowering behind the clouds and Wellington’s characteristic wind was finally present, clinging to our jackets and tangling our hair. As much as Wellington called to us, we didn’t last much longer. After all, we had an early morning flight to catch.

Observing Wellington

Our friend Yvonne arrived in the morning and so did the clouds. Gone was the sunshine and as Yvonne, Kirsten, and I walked the streets in the diffused like, I felt like the Wellington I had gotten to know yesterday had been replaced by another, colder cousin.

But still we trudged on through the nearly deserted road towards Mount Victoria. The peak had stood stoically on the sidelines of our vision yesterday, and viewing that towering green mass, we were worried about the climb up it. However as we moved through the pines, listening to the native birds calling our names, we could feel a slight strain in our muscles but not our breath. The hills of Auckland had trained us well.

The wind whipped out hair at the lookout. Below us New Zealand’s capital unfurled amongst the trees, squat buildings huddling together between two volcanic peaks. Yvonne was reminded of a tropic, greener version of LA. We lingered at the top for a moment, trying to locate the part of the city that had treated us so well yesterday. Soon the wind chill seeped into our bodies and we agreed it was time to move on.

Back at sea level, we sat at the harbor and ate our picnic lunches. Another bagpiper called out to the emptier harbor and Kirsten and I tried to explain to Yvonne the beauty and crowds yesterday underneath the sun. It was hard for her to picture in the gray, wind catching the water as it crashed into the rocks. We retreated indoors afterwards and stepped down into the Underground Market. Through the crowds we pushed to take a look at the dozens of craft stalls the formed a maze in that massive space. Souvenirs were bought and time was wasted. We were satisfied.

Out back into the streets and we made our way through more shoppers to the famous Wellington Cable Car. We stepped inside that little red wooden box and looked up as the angled car began to be pulled up by a cable like a child’s toy. Through colorful tunnels that would’ve had Gene Wilder (RIP) singing and we were suddenly at the Botanical Gardens. After a brief stop at the Cable Car Museum, we went out to the outlook. The city stretched out beneath us, lazy in the gloomy atmosphere. Instead of walking again beneath the clouds through the gardens, we opted instead to buy a ticket to the Space Place at the observatory.

A family watches a video about landing on Mars in the Space Place. © Violet Acevedo
In the Space Place, a family watches a video about landing on Mars. © Violet Acevedo

The lights of simulated stars illuminated the bewondered faces of the children roaming about the small museum. Mixed with Maori traditions and myths, the exhibits explained the basics of the universe and space exploration through interactive videos and voices. I felt my childhood love of all things space surge in my chest. The little kid in me was going nuts. Soon we filed into the planetarium to watch an animated Andy Serkis explain the cosmic origins of the atoms in our bodies and then listen as our presenter guided us around the southern sky.

The clouds and impending rain still obscured that same sky when we stepped back out into the real world. Even through the day was still young, the hours out were beginning to weigh heavily on our shoulders and still planning to go out that evening, we decided to head back to the hostel and rest.

Welcoming Wellington

The sun was still asleep when we woke up that morning. According to the weather, Auckland was unlikely to see it all day but in Wellington, the city whose weather Kirsten and I had been warned about, was a different story. The early morning sunlight dazzled us when we touched down in the “Middle of Middle Earth.”

After dropping our bags off at the hostel, we wandered in the light, dazed from the beauty of the day (and the lack of caffeine). We lingered over toast and tea/coffee and watched as the capital of New Zealand slowly woke up.

The streets were still fairly empty once we stepped back out into the day. So we strolled along the shoreline, soaking in the beauty of the distant hills and the rocking boats. 10 am rolled around and Wellington finally began to stretch its legs and make some noise.

Having no predetermined plan for that day, we meandered around the enlivened streets, making decisions as opportunities presented themselves. The City Gallery opened its doors to us and we briefly explored its contemporary depths for free. Then back into the clean urban streets. We noticed that the main thoroughfares hid laneways much more orderly than Melbourne’s.

We continued on through the ordered urban crush and the sharp angled sun until a strangely shaped building loomed up in the near distance. Here was Wellington’s crown: The (affectionately named) Beehive. This 1970s structure with its round, dark walls clashed with the light and regal neo-classical columns of the Parliament buildings. But somehow Wellington made it seem natural and appropriate next to the governmental brains of New Zealand. Once again we were welcomed in, this time to take a free tour. So we spent a couple hours away from the sun in the small cambers of the kiwi government, learning about its inner workings and basic functions.

The Wellington Beehive. © Violet Acevedo
The Wellington Beehive. © Violet Acevedo

We were released back into the daylight just in time for lunch. After a quick Malaysian curry, we strolled through the streets once again. We were moving farther and farther away from Wellington’s bustling heart into its Victorian suburban arm. Grand old houses lined the road, peering down at us through laced trimmings and tall windows. We walked to the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Park and hung out a bit in the warm light amongst freshly bloomed flowers. We were thankful that spring had finally arrived in New Zealand.

Not wanting to abandon the weather after we left the small confines of the park, we headed back to the waterfront. It was mid-afternoon and everything was alive. Families and tourists, vendors and skateboarders populated the walk ways as the water sparkled in the sun. We sat for a while on the quay, watching the life and the light until a bagpiper came to belt out his tunes.

Farther along the waterfront we went, our backs getting toasty in the setting sun. We reached Clyde Quay Warf and knew we wanted to go no more. We strolled back to the hostel and chilled for a couple hours before heading out with our friend from the BU program once our stomachs grew empty.

As we walked down Cuba Street, it was as if the city and turned over to reveal its wilder side. Lights were on. People were moving. And it all seemed to center around the Friday Night Market. Dozens of food stalls reached deep into a narrow alley. Crowds squeezed past each other to look and smell the dumplings and roti wraps and noodle bowls and French crepes and Chinese crepes and fusion tacos and African curries and fancy churros and much more. Two different singers cut into the rush and we quickly separated to make our dinner choices.

Poor Kirsten became nauseous from something she ate earlier in the day and left early. So our friend and I end up sitting next to the speaker with our various tasty choices, listening to her belt out covers with a stunning voice. The nightlife side of Wellington was just coming out when we walked back, but we were both the day and we knew that Wellington would be with us tomorrow.