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Sky giant

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While visiting Rotorura, New Zealand, we walked through this forest of giants – looking up, sunshine obscuring the upper canopy, the trees continued on forever. We measured the trunks with our bodies, circled around in a family hug, amazed at how small we really are.
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Hobbiton, NZ

We have so many great memories from so many beautiful places on earth. Starting today, we’re sharing them with a weekly photo from thecayas archive. Enjoy!

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Is there a more magical place on earth than New Zealand? We visited in January 2014, when the sun was hot and the fields overgrown. But it was the perfect day to stop in at Hobbiton. No hobbitses, but plenty of fun.

Vacation down under: pictures of pictures

While we were on vacation with my parents, B and I came up with a seriously hilarious and sneaky game. The goal was to take as many secret pictures as we could of my Dad… taking pictures.

This turned out to be easier than you would think. And far more rewarding.

Apparently we all look a bit silly when we’re taking pictures, especially when, in the case of my Dad, you have recently gotten a new camera and have to concentrate particularly hard. But it was all in good fun, and in fact, I have to admit that many of the best photos in our recent vacation posts were his from the very moments we captured here.

Personally, this is my favorite album of all the ones I shared over the past few weeks. Love you, daddy!

New Zealand Part 6 – Underground

Our final stop in New Zealand was to visit the Waitomo glow worm caves. The site is a series of limestone caves discovered in the 1880s that are home to millions of glowing bugs, filling the roof of the caverns with tiny, starry lights. This was special enough that we decided to make a special 3-hour drive each way just to visit it (well, that was also partly due to poor planning on our part, but still worth it!).

The main cave is the most famous, and thus the most packed. About 20 of us were shepherded through at a time, stopping to check out a few underground sights – a couple of huge stalactites, some watery pools, and more notably, the cathedral chamber: a section of the caves that have particularly clear and perfect acoustics. I almost broke out in song, but I managed to hold myself back.

Soon it was time to see the glow worms. We were bundled down a set of steps toward a boat dock, where we would take turns being floated through the glowing abyss. Of course, this all took place in the dark, in the quiet, so we wouldn’t disturb the worms and turn off their lights.

Unfortunately, J, being a particularly uncoordinated four-year-old, tripped and scraped her knee about 5 minutes before we headed for the boats. For whatever reason, even the tiniest bit of blood makes her panic beyond control. So of course, there we are, in the dark, in the quiet, packed tightly with a group of strangers, and J is freaking out. We calmed her down enough to get onto the boat, and while we floated along in the dark, experiencing one of life’s beautiful, magical, almost spiritual wonders, a tiny voice spent the whole time whimpering about “something something band-aid.” Sorry, everyone else in the glow worm cave that day.

Luckily we had a second cave to visit, and second time’s a charm. This one came with a personalized 2-hour walking tour. We traveled down into the mouth of the cave, stopping to wash our hands at a rock in a special Maori ritual. The cave started with a walkway of stalactites and special curtain-shaped limestone buildups. Then we dug deeper underground to see some more glow worms. We had a close-up look at them this time. And it turns out they are ugly little suckers. Apparently they’re these rather disgusting maggots that hang on the wall, dangling a bunch of gooey mucus strings from their body in the hopes of catching flies or something. I can’t imagine how many flies these dudes are catching, because, seriously, it’s the middle of a cave in the middle of nowhere, but hey, there must be something for them to eat otherwise they wouldn’t all be there. Anyway, there’s something beautiful about them even though you’re looking at glowing worm colons and snot strings.

Moving along, we came to an area of the cave known as ‘The Pretties’ – so named because it is so darn pretty. It looks exactly the way you think limestone caves should look: beautiful white and yellow spirals hanging from every surface, small springs of clear water dripping musical water droplets onto pyramids of velvety crystals at your feet, dark secret spaces in the back of the walls hiding mysteries. Apparently the Queen (Elizabeth II) was meant to visit some years back but didn’t make it for some reason or another. Her loss!

In the oldest part of the cave, we learned about the history of the site. How a local land owner stood his ground against the government – literally, stood by the entrance with his shotgun until they finally settled the ownership.

That afternoon, we drove back to Auckland for a last night together with my parents before they set off the next day for home (via Hawaii – don’t feel too bad for them!). Unfortunately, we stayed in and ordered room service for dinner and I later stayed up all night with the worst case of food poisoning ever. So that was fun. At least we went out of NZ with a bang. Thanks for all the memories!

New Zealand Part 5 – Whitianga Coast

We spent our last few days hanging around the Coromandel peninsula. This is lovely part of New Zealand, just northeast of Auckland. It’s a beach area, and has a friendly, hippy vibe.

The drive from Matamata to Whitianga was beautiful, but admittedly a bit nerve-wracking. At first we headed up the east coast, but we were told by some old-timers at a cafe stop that the way we were going would be too busy – we should cross over and head up the west coast to avoid all the traffic. Now, putting things in perspective, I don’t think those old folks have any idea what real traffic is like… we live in Jakarta. We see traffic every day that I think would give those dudes a heart attack. Anyway, we believed them and crossed to the other side. We saw about 100 cars over the course of the day.. and that was high season traffic!

As it turns out, we followed a coastal road that was about the width of 1.5 cars, which hugged the cliffside the whole way. And apparently NZ doesn’t believe in guard rails or fencing. And we were on the outside. I was pretty sure we were going to jump the edge and plummet to our firey deaths for most of the way. I gripped our map to death. But we stopped at all the beaches and lookouts, and saw some of the prettiest landscapes I think I’ve ever seen. So the risk to our lives was worth it!

In Whitianga proper, we rented a beach house and hung around the town for a few days. There were a few little shops and cafes, but in general the options a bit lower-quality than we were hoping for. The best store they had specialized in imported items from Indonesia – ironic. Especially because B and I have been trying to buy local art. So we didn’t get anything there! Luckily on our last day in town, we found a fantastic brew house with some local beers and delicious English-style dinners. Chalk up another “best meal ever” to our trip list!

One of the highlights of the Whitianga area is the hot water beach. This is a section of the coast where a hot spring feeds into the water, so you can go at low tide and dig yourself a little hole in the sand, which will fill up with hot spring water! When we arrived, there was a bit of a frenzy, and of course none of us really knew what we were doing. We dug two or three holes but only managed to get cold water. After a while, we managed to steal away another group’s existing hole when they left and had a quick soak. It wasn’t quite as relaxing as we had hoped, but at least we can say we did it! Unfortunately, on the same visit to the beach, B decided he wanted to film himself wave jumping, but the ocean decided to steal his glasses as payment. So he spent the rest of our trip squinting.

The days passed too quickly, and soon it was time to go. We only had one day left before our return home, and we had a long drive to do, with a stop at an underground glow worm cave! Coming up next…

New Zealand Part 4 – Journey to the Shire

The highlight of our trip was without a doubt our tour of Hobbiton. Yes, of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit fame – that Hobbiton! On our way out of Rotorua, we made a special trip to visit the set of the Shire. It is situated on a sheep farm, and they offer tours of the site.

The kids were pretty excited. Ok, maybe B and I were more excited, but still, everyone was looking forward to it. The tour started at a farmhouse converted into a visitor’s center, where we boarded a bus and were transported up a hill and around a corner. We stopped for a few sheep, a bus coming the other way, some more sheep, and then suddenly, there was the Shire, just ahead!

We saw everything – Hobbiton’s gardens, all the hobbit holes, Sam’s house, the cranky old man’s house, the party tree and field, the bridge and the water wheel, the Green Dragon pub, and of course, Bag End. It was fantastic.

The tour guide kept telling the kids that they would get to go inside one of the hobbit houses, and oh man J was so excited for that. Finally, we made it to the special hobbit house that was open for viewing. She was no nervous to open the door, so I helped. I pushed it open and peeked inside…. And it was just a tiny dark hole filled with dirt and umbrellas. So yeah, that was a bit of a let-down, but not enough to dampen our spirits.

We ended the tour at the Green Dragon pub – the real one! We drank cider and ginger beer and sat by the fire until it was time to go. I think I was a hobbit in a past life, because I could have stayed there forever.

 

New Zealand Part 3 – Maori & Geysers

While we were in Rotorua, we decided to take a tour of the local geyser, which is housed within the property of a Maori cultural center. They had a special ticket price where we could have a tour of the village grounds, the carving and weaving schools, a kiwi habitat and the geyser, as well as an evening Maori music/dance show and dinner. Sweet!

The afternoon started with the tour. The grounds were lovely, and they had a lot of nice artifacts, carvings, and buildings. We watched them weave baskets, carve some decorative wall panels and tour the meeting houses (where we would later see the show). After that, we walked down toward the geyser. Whoo mama, it was awesome! Apparently this one is rather sporadic, unlike Old faithful, for example. This one just randomly decides to “geys” (*is that the verb??) whenever enough steam and gases build up. We were lucky enough to arrive during a particularly large geysing. It was hitting about 25 feet into the air!

We wandered up and around the geyser site, checking out other steam vents and fizzling pools. We also saw a bunch of bubbling mud holes, which they use to make cosmetic products. (Some of the photos are actually from a second set of bubbling mud pools we visited another day, but I figured they all went together well enough!)

After the geyser, we visited a kiwi viewing habitat inside a building. Now, apparently kiwis are nocturnal – who knew! So we were ushered into a pitch black room and told that the kiwis were somewhere inside this bushy area, vaguely near the back of the habitat. Yeah, I think I might have seen its beak. Anyway, so that was not as cool as you would have hoped. At least we saw a building in which kiwis were possibly living, so there’s that.

Next, onto the show! It started with us gathering at the great lawn and waiting for the warriors to invite us in. This involved a lot of chubby guys yelling and gesturing with sticks. Then there was a bit of singing, and we were brought into the meeting house. Then, we enjoyed a few singing and dancing numbers, with the troupe of warriors and lady.. warriors? Anyway, they were pretty good. It seemed a bit like a high school play. In fact, I’m thinking it might have been the school break job for some of them, like you would go and work a summer camp for a few months – well, maybe you join the Maori troupe and entertain tourists. Anyway, they did the hakka dance – it’s cool, look it up. It’s the big-eyed, tongue-sticking-out dance – here’s the ending:

After the show, we chowed down on “real” Maori dishes, some of which were cooked in an underground pit. Honestly, most of the food seemed pretty normal to me, but it was still yummy. Later, we took another twilight tour of the geyser, but it had quieted down by then. Still, the area was misty and surreal, with the moon hanging low in the sky, muting all the yellow sulfur and blue rocks. It was getting chilly, so we lounged for a few minutes on some thermally heated rocks and shared a few cups of hot chocolate before heading home.

Perhaps it was just the magic of the evening, but I came away from Rotorua wondering if maybe we have a drop of Maori in our family tree. It certainly felt a bit like home!

 

New Zealand Part 2 – Touring Rotorua

Our second stop in our New Zealand adventure took us to a town in the middle of the north island called Rotorua. It’s famous for being a “thermal wonderland” – home to hot springs, geysers, volcanic lakes and a wicked sulphur smell. Like the town was built on rotten eggs. It’s also home to a large population of Maori, though of course we could really only see the tourist side of the culture, kitschy knick-knacks and culture nights. But it was still good fun.

We rented a little apartment overlooking Rotorua lake, mostly because it had a hot tub. The neighborhood was a bit run down – the neighboring house was an empty shell and I’m fairly certain the next one over may have been the residence of a particularly friendly professional lady.

When we arrived in town, the rental wasn’t quite ready, so we wandered down the street and discovered a fair/flea market set up in the park. It turns out these kinds of fairs are pretty much the same everywhere: a few kids’ rides, people selling handmade soaps and earrings, dudes with a bunch of random items from their basements, grannies selling crocheted everything, a young girl selling an entire table full of princess Diana memorabilia.. ok maybe that one was unique, I’m not sure. Anyway, the kids were pretty excited to buy something, so we gave them each a few dollars – J bought a coloring book and LittleB bought a tiny chess set. Not bad!

Eventually we checked into our apartment and settled into the hot tub for the night. It was freezing, actually. Apparently they had just filled it. But hey, we’re Canadian so it felt ok to us.

The next day, we had a great time wandering around the area. We stopped at the nearby Blue and Green Lakes to check out the view. Beautiful! Then we made our way to a Tea House at a historical Maori village. The tour was $30/person, so we only stayed for the tea. Luckily they had some of the best scones I’ve ever eaten in my life. Worth it.

We stopped at a redwood forest for a looksee. Having lived on the west coast of Canada, we had seen huge redwoods before; but they’re always amazing! This forest had been planted in memoriam of NZ servicemen who died in the war(s). We decided to measure the trees in “Bs” – how many Bs fit around the trunk? The biggest one we found was 4.5 Bs around. That’s a big tree.

Overall the walk was beautiful, except for the fact that J fell about a thousand times and got a teeny tiny cut on her knee, and, well, that was the end of that. There was no way she was going to be able to walk back to the car without wailing and collapsing in agony every ten steps. Then we got to the gift shop and she wailed and collapsed at the injustice of us not buying her something. It’s a rough life to be four with a teeny tiny cut on your knee.

Anyway, the rest of us had a nice time!

New Zealand Part 1 – Around Auckland

After our week and a half in Sydney, you would think that was the end of our vacation. But wait, there’s more! We still had another ten days in friendly New Zealand!

We hopped on a flight into Auckland, and landed midday. What can I say about northern New Zealand? It really reminded me of Canada. The land is something like a mix of Nova Scotia and the Okanagan valley – rolling hills, pastures, coast. It really is a beautiful place.

Our time in Auckland proper was short. We checked into an apartment hotel for the night, mostly just looking forward to doing laundry for the night. We had one day in the city to enjoy the sights before heading out on the road for a driving tour of the north island. In the morning, we got up to wander around a bit. We walked downtown, but we were threatened by rain and whiny children, so we didn’t stick around too long. There were some nice harbour views, but, really, not much else to do.

After some afternoon napping – and more laundry – we grabbed some burgers for dinner (I had venison!) and went for a drive. We ended up down the coast, where we found an awesome playground for the kids right along the beach. J spent a while looking for mermaid seashells – you know, the ones you wear over your mermaid boobies. She could only find one, and she was very disappointed when I told her she couldn’t wear it… meanwhile, LittleB headed into the playground. He doesn’t really like playing with other kids, so normally he avoids playgrounds until they clear out. He circled the place, looking for an opening, until he spied a group of huge maori kids playing on this spinning tire toy. I guess those were his people! He jumped on there and spent the next half hour trying to win at some sort of “spin the tire as fast as possible and see who falls off first” game. It looked like he was having a riot.

Jumping out of chronological order, we also spent our final day in NZ visiting our friends in Auckland. It was great to see how the locals live it up, and they were kind enough to show us around the parks and playgrounds in the area. We had a lovely view of the city from the top of Mount Wellington. It was a great way to end a great trip!

But don’t worry, there’s still more. After yet some more laundry, the next day we hit the road for our visit to Rotorua, the thermal wonderland of NZ. Coming up next!

Home for a rest

Happy New Year!

We’ve arrived home safe and sated after an amazing three weeks in the land(s) down under.

We saw breathtaking mountain scenery, watched world-famous NYE fireworks, tasted wine and hugged koalas, fed great white sharks, walked in a giant redwood forest, drank hot chocolate beside a bursting geyser, dug a private spa on the beach, peeked into hobbit holes, and spiraled down into a damp, sacred cave lit only by the light of a million twinkling glowworms.

We welcomed Grandma and Grandpa to this side of the world, celebrated two Christmases, three birthday parties, drank wine, played cards, soaked in the hot tub under the stars, danced the Hakka, laughed, whined, stopped at every playground in Australia and New Zealand, ate the best meal of our lives, said goodbye… It was a perfect vacation, and I can’t wait until the next one!

Much more to come!