The Land of Volcano’s
Marie and I board the huge Interislander ferry at 6:15am Wednesday morning. We find comfy seats in front of giant windows that look over the bow of the ship but I am restless and keep going outside to watch the dark water as we plow through the Queen Charlotte sound heading toward Cook Strait and the North Island. The moon is setting in the west and the sun is rising in the east, just as it does at home but I couldn’t imagine a more different landscape than this. Tree covered hills rise straight out of the calm water, not as dramatically as at Milford Sound but just as beautiful in a more peaceful way. I can’t stay outside for long, it’s very cold and windy, but I am too excited to stay inside for long either. Marie finally gives up and stretches out to take a nap while I shuttle in and out.
A minister from my church lives in Wellington and we have been Skyping and emailing for a couple of months, preparing for my arrival in her city. Her name is Suzie and she’s picking me up at the ferry terminal. I say goodbye to Marie, she is heading north to see a friend. Suzie pulls up, with an elfin happy face and curly brown hair. We hug and take off for a little tour of the city. Wellington has a small town feel to it and for a city, it’s not bad. It’s easy to get around and there are lots of coffee shops and cafes.
Suzie drives me around a waterfront road and we stop for lunch at a café a little outside of town, with a view of the water. I order a seafood chowder, Wellington is known for its seafood, and I’m not disappointed. It is slightly creamy and fully loaded with mussels, shrimp, fish, and clams. Soups here always come with some kind of hearty, toasted bread, usually loaded up with delicious butter. That plus my flat white and I am completely warmed up and ready to rock.
Suzie offers a list of options of things to do for the afternoon, but I ask about the WETA studio and she says it’s on our way home, and my eyes light up immediately. WETA is Peter Jackson’s special effects studio in Wellington, where everything from hobbit ears and feet, to orc swords and Aragorn’s chain mail are made. No question, that’s the place I wanna be. Suzie drops me off, she is running errands instead. Go figure. I buy my ticket and stand by the door, wanting to be first in line. One thing about being alone, there is no one to protect me from my own nerdiness.
Our guide is actually a young American girl who has been working as a sculptor at WETA for three years. She has a very dry sense of humor and the tour is fascinating. It still astounds me the effort and time put into every detail. There is one armorer who made the weaponry for the films, some of which is actual steel but most of it was made from forms that he fashioned so that they could be somewhat mass produced. The chain mail was linked together piece by piece by university students. The list goes on but I couldn’t take pictures inside and can’t remember the abundance of details.
WETA does special effects for other movies as well. One of my favorite things was a sheep’s head with fangs and blood dripping down its muzzle, from a movie called Black Sheep. The sheep become infected and turn into “bloodthirsty killers.” The caption underneath the head said, “Vampire sheep…every Kiwi’s nightmare-there are 40 million sheep here and we’re outnumbered 10 to 1.”
It was a wonderful afternoon followed by a great dinner later that evening with Suzie and her husband Stuart. I finally tried Bangers and Mash, which is sausages and mashed potatoes. It went perfectly with my tasty Speight’s draft but I think I may give up sausages while I’m here. It’s a texture thing.
The next day, Suzie and I took a NakedBus to Lake Taupo, the ancient crater of a supervolcano. It was a very comfortable bus, cheap and it was relaxing for both of us not to worry about driving. The scenery was mostly pastoral-green rolling hills dotted with sheep, cows, even alpaca’s. We began slowly climbing as we entered Tongariro National Park, situated near the center of the island. The landscape became flatter and turned brown. Suzie told me we were on the Desert Road and off in the distance to my left were extinct volcanos, a line of them, covered in snow. There were ski resorts in those mountains and this was high ski season. Taupo was a base for skiers in the winter and for boaters and fishermen in the summer. It is known for its trout fishing and I saw dozens of fishermen casting in a wide shallow river on the way into town.
Suzie had found a lovely hotel right on Lake Taupo that had a thermal pool. Because of all the volcanic activity, this part of New Zealand has dozens of hot springs, mineral and thermal pools. Many hotels have their own thermal pools but in addition, there are lots of spa resorts that offer mud baths, massage, everything you can imagine to treat your poor tired body. We hopped into the pool as soon as we checked in and I melted some of my soreness away. Tomorrow we were going to hot spring central, a town called Rotorua, almost as touristy as Queenstown but geared more toward relaxation and family time.
We rented a car when we arrived in Taupo on Thursday, to be returned Saturday. The drive to Rotorua was only 40 minutes but we made a few stops on the way. One of them was Orakei Korako, a beautiful geothermal springs and geyser viewing site just north of Taupo. It was perched on the edge of a lake and I had to take a small ferry boat across the lake to get to it. The walk took about 45 minutes and went past silicate terraces, bubbling mud pots, boiling hot springs of every color blue, a variety of little landscapes straight from another planet. It was fascinating although I didn’t see any of the geysers actually geysing? Spouting? Shooting water?
There is so much thermal activity in New Zealand that they harness some of it for power. About 10% of the country’s power comes from this but the majority comes from wind, solar and hydroelectricity. Kiwi’s do not use nuclear power and feel so strongly about it that they won’t let the US Navy bring their nuclear powered ships into NZ waters.
In Rotorua, we went straight to our hotel and got into the hot pool there, just like we had done in Taupo. Suzie had stayed here the last time she went to Rotorua and liked it because right across the street was a rehabilitation center that also had a small spa. Our plan was to have a soak, go get dinner, walk to the spa, have a massage then go to bed!! We didn’t need the car, there were dozens of restaurants right around the corner.
The spa was an old WWII hospital built by the Americans for the soldiers injured in the war. It was now primarily used for patients with arthritis, as the mineral springs hot pools in the hospital were very good for their recuperation. I was told to soak in their hot mineral pool for fifteen minutes, then come and get on the table. I asked Mary, my masseuse, to work on my shoulder and on my hips which were really bothering me since my long hike. She was awesome and I felt so relaxed, I was thrilled that all I had to do was put on dry clothes, walk across the street and fall into bed. Before I went home though, I had to pay for my treatment. The woman at the desk and I started talking and she said something about being a widow. We talked about how we both had been coping. Her husband had died four years ago, and she was still having a very tough time. When you belong to that sad club, it’s like there’s a shorthand and you just immediately understand each other. I think it must be like war veteran’s that only talk about the war to other veterans. Unless you’ve been there, you just can’t understand. You can empathize, but you can’t imagine living it every day. Why would you want to? I felt like we helped each other and I was so glad we had met. It was a great way to end the night.