The Soul Takes Photos Too

 Five months ago, we were in New Zealand.  It is still so fresh in my mind.  Not like vacations that have no staying power, and what I mean by that is four days after you are home, you can just remember bits and pieces of your traveling.  You argue with your spouse about which town had the aqueduct or which city it was where we ate grilled octopus like it grew on trees. 

But, New Zealand has been different.  It’s as if my soul is not counting on the mind to remember everything, and it has made its own backups of all those amazing landscapes which, at times, could have been moonscapes like the geothermal town of Rotorua where steam shoots straight up in peoples’ front yards or a sidewalk suddenly changes course to accommodate hot steam shooting into the sky.  And, from the surrounding hills, when you look down on the city it looks like the whole place had been on fire moments earlier but a downpour put out the fire, leaving everything in sight to smolder white threads of steam.  Sometimes I think about New Zealand, and just have to stop whatever I am doing so I can watch a scene again in my head.  Like watching the waves at Urguharts Bay in the Whangarei Heads.  Or the two-story tall Maori carvings on the side of a rock cliff  on Lake Taupo, or the drive to Coromandel Peninsula when we pulled over and I cried for joy at God’s creation.  I still think about our tour guide in a working Maori village  and how proud she was of her heritage.  Physically beautiful and built like a “she-warrior”, she walked down the streets of the little village like the mayor.  Not a forgettable person and a woman with such strength and confidence you could trace it with your finger.  There is also the time we spent talking about world politics with the captain of the boat we chartered on Lake Taupo.  That time was special.  His struggles and triumphs sounded a lot like our own, which reinforces that no matter how wide the ocean or how tall the mountain separates us all, we always can find something about the other that bonds us as citizens of the world. 



Maps and Roads   Don’t let maps fool you. New Zealand doesn’t have an interstate system and only has divided highways in the immediate cities of Auckland and Wellington, and they are short and brief. So distances on your map can be deceiving. In some areas, 150 mile trip can take three hours because of all the hairpin turns you must share with large trucks and RV travel on the single lane roads. In the summer, a lot of tourists traveling in RVs are driving at break-neck wagon train speeds. While we were there, there was a fatal car accident involving an American tourist who was driving on the wrong side of the road, hit a local and killed that driver.  He was in jail when we left and was going to be charged with manslaughter.  You are starting to hear rumblings about all the accidents tourists are causing on their roads.  If you rent a car, I suggest taking the time to getting used to driving on the opposite of the road during a quiet time of the day.  Don’t head off in Auckland during peak traffic time unless you are used to driving like the Kiwis do.  Turning on your windshield wipers instead of the turn signal will be a daily occurrence.  Believe me on this one.

If a route looks like it has soft gentle curves like say a wisp of a baby’s lock of hair, think again. It will be more like a tight ringlet straight off of Orphan Annie’s head. Often, roads do not have shoulders or rail guards. An example of this happened to us after leaving Thames on our way to the Coromandel Peninsula. We were headed to Tairua where we had rented an Airbnb beach hut. Instead of taking a more direct route, we opted (upon my suggestion – something I was reminded of several times later) to take the scenic route along the water’s edge of Firth of Thames. The Coromandel Forest Park was on our right. A maniacal laugh is coming from me right now as I look at the same map we used that day, noting how relatively straight forward our route appeared on paper. We started getting used to blind curves and harrowing turns as the forest gave way and we felt less hemmed Vista views were not often, but we finally encountered one and when we got out of the car,  we both gasped at the Genesis-like view of God’s creation. I felt weak knee’d looking at it.   Turns out scary, scenic routes can be worth the extra time and unbridled knee-knocking . Take them and don’t forget to stop and take a real gander. Take it all in. Press it hard into your brain so you won’t forget it. Later, when you are home, you can squeeze your eyes real hard and remember that you were there.
Road Construction    New Zealand has a unique way of pouring asphalt. They pour gravel down on the newly poured pavement but instead of huge rollers pressing the gravel down, they leave the rest to helpless motorists and their vehicles. On one stretch from Hamilton to Auckland, my husband and I, along with an impressive and steady caravan of cars, zipped along at 29 miles an hour. We probably could have gone faster but when the natives are poking along as well, there must be something to the road signs warning you about windshield damage.  The noise from all the gravel was deafening, but everyone was so civil….mostly I suspect from resignation.  It lasted about 15 minutes and then it was over except for the sound of all the gravel in our hub caps and in the underbelly of our rental.
I suspect that early Fall is a big time for road construction because in certain areas we stumbled on it but it wasn’t a huge problem. We did lose some time, but as always, the scenery was fantastic as we crawled along.

Creatures, Birds, Plants and Trees    Frogs.  In New Zealand, frogs are among the most ancient. They were carried to NZ by the continental drift millions of years ago. They have no eardrums and do not call or croak. They use their mouth to catch, not their tongue. They lay small numbers of large yolky eggs in moist places but not underwater. Tadpoles grow inside the eggs and hatch as tailed froglets. Although, they don’t have a tail, they are born with tail-wagging muscles. (I wonder what happens when they get excited. Do those tail-wagging muscles react in some way?)

Black Swans.   New Zealand only has black swans which are native to this country. They are considered somewhat of a nuisance because of their numbers. We saw them many times all over the North Island and always in large numbers. They do not have white swans.

The Kiwi bird is nocturnal and very shy. We never saw one while there except the stuffed variety in museums. One hundred years ago, they were in the millions, but apparently, ‘they’re good eatin”. They were overhunted and new predators, especially dogs and cats, were introduced to New Zealand and now they are seriously endangered. Approximately 20% of the kiwi population is under management.
In management areas where predators are controlled, 50-60% of chicks survive. When areas are not under management, 95% of kiwi die before reaching breeding age. We saw several signs for managed areas. Sorry we never saw one of these unusual birds. They don’t fly, their feathers are like hair and they have nostrils at the end of their beaks. There eggs are very large and a new born chick has enough nutrition in its belly to survive almost a week without a feeding. They behave more like mammals and at times have been called “honorary mammals”. (I wonder how the other birds feel about them.)

Plants, trees and things I couldn’t identify   This is one of the aspects of visiting New Zealand which I had expected but when it happened, I felt like I fell into a crevice in the ground and ended up in Jurassic Park. New Zealand is a Disneyland of Weirdness (although I haven’t been to Australia yet and suspect they top NZ.) Fern trees abound, their trunks long and spindly. Then, there are the trees that belong in the land of Jack and the Bean Stalk. (I can say the same for the three-story tall stone cairn we saw in downtown Auckland’s Albert Park. I suggest avoiding it in an earthquake.)
I was fascinated by all the moss growing on trees. Often, they were thick like a hipster’s beard.  Other things grew on trees like jewelry, like these cranberry colored whatever-you-call-them. While on a track near the Huka Falls, I became obsessed with all these things I couldn’t identify. I wanted to know more. I realized a huge appreciation for botantists and dendrologists, and vowed to hire a guide next time we explored forests in New Zealand.

New Zealand is a geological wonder. You can drive in farmlands that are awash in the most vibrant green. I think God added extra pigment to the color green in the land of the Kiwi. And, to shake things up (literally), he made it a place of earthquakes and volcanoes. In those rolling hills of wheat, grapes, orchards, and kiwi fruit, you will spot small peaks covered in grass. In a drive from Rotorua to Lake Taupo, we kept noticing them everywhere. Then it hit us. They were probably dormant “vents” formed to relieve pressure from volcanoes nearby. If they were in the States, they would have been the playground for dirt bikes and land-altering vehicles of pleasure. Here, they were just part of the blindingly green landscape.


New Zealanders (also called Kiwis)   Since they are under the commonwealth of Britain, they have manners. They know how to stand in a queue which is something I totally respect after visiting Italy and Greece. They like order, something we noticed in particular at cafes, and New Zealand has a lot of cafes. You go to the counter and place your order. Staff will deliver it to your table. On your table, you will find drinking glasses with cutlery wrapped in a napkin and placed in the center. Just from observation, I noticed that staff was intent on keeping everything in order. Not just neat and tidy, but keeping a system in place. I suspect it is a system that has been in place for generations. If you put something back in the wrong place, it is quickly corrected. Not with judgment but out of necessity for their own sanity.

Miscellaneous Stuff about New Zealand  I never saw a mega cinema house like here in the States, but we never ventured into the suburbs of Auckland, the biggest city. There are small, 2-3 screen theaters in mid-sized towns. Where we went there appeared to be only two people working there. The cashier, a harried-looking woman, also worked the concession area. We saw her later cleaning up after the movie. From our one experience seeing a movie, all three movies started at the same time. We all queued in the same line. Then at the appropriate time, the other person working in the theater, made his appearance; yelled out the name of your movie (we saw Lion) and said anyone viewing that movie to come forward quickly. And, that’s what we did in an orderly fashion.  No stampede like when the airlines start their cattle calls based on your status, starting with cream of the crop to crumbs of society. [That is another topic for discussion some other day. The shaming of passengers based on status. Ugh.]  And, perhaps the most remarkable thing we witnessed:  no commercials before the movie.  Zip.  All I could think was “lost revenue”.



New Zealand-The North Island

West of Coromandel, on the scenic route along Firth Bay

I started planning for this trip to New Zealand five months ago and in a couple of hours, we will be boarding our flight to San Francisco, then on to Auckland, New Zealand.   I am having trouble wrapping my head around the fact that we are leaving tonight (Thursday) at 11 pm from SFO and will arrive in Auckland shortly after sunrise on SATURDAY.  Equally weird, on our return, we leave on a Tuesday at 2 pm and our plane touches down here in Austin the same day, an hour later.

I knew a little bit about New Zealand, but planning the trip was more of a challenge than usual because I simply didn’t know the lay of the land.  One of the challenges has been the names of  towns.  A large portion of the names are in Maori, an Eastern Polynesian language spoken by the Māori people, the indigenous population of New Zealand.  I did learn that the vowels are pronounced the same as in the Spanish language.  One major difference is WH Is generally pronounced like an F (the top front teeth and bottom lip barely touch).  A significant thing to know since a lot of towns start with Wh.

There is one name of a town in New Zealand that would stump most people and that is the longest name place of any in the world per the Guiness World Records.  Located near Porangahau in Hawke’s Bay (North Island wine country) is Taumata whakatangi hangakoauau o tamatea turi pukakapiki maunga horo nuku pokai whenua kitanatahu”, which translates into English as “the place where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, who slid, climbed and swallowed mountains, known as ‘landeater’, played his flute to his loved one.” Locals simply call it Taumata Hill.