New Zealand Adventure

December and January 2019-2020


Christmas in Rotorua: Tuesday, December 24th and Wednesday, December 25th

We all woke up around 6:30 in our cute little trailer/cabin unit and prepared breakfast in the nearby communal kitchen before eating on our front porch, where we even had a garland and Christmas stocking as decorations (freebies from shopping at Countdown the night before). It was a bit cooler today, still pleasant, but in the 60s, and not the blinding sun we'd experienced in Auckland and Hobbiton. We dined on strawberry milk, hundreds and thousands granola bars, pancakes with beautiful creamy honey, bananas, and bacon rolls. The bathrooms were clean, close, and colorful, and the kitchens were large and well-appointed. There was even a "campers' herb garden" you could chop chives or basil or tarragon, etc., from to add to your meals if you wished. We definitely wished Sarah and Sean and Evie had been able to enjoy this campground with us!

We passed a bit of time at the playground, with a frisbee and a swing set and a giant chess game, and then at 9:30 we drove over to the Buried Village archaeological site for a guided tour of the (partially) buried village and a short hike to a waterfall. They had a cute kids' scavenger hunt which sent our children (well, Marcus and Samantha--Helen slept through the entire village in my sling) seeking for clues at every site. It was really well done, and then each child (Helen too--she was awake by then) got a chocolate coin at the end of their “treasure hunt” after saying the secret phrase—revealed on the last clue—in the office at the end.

From Buried Village we stopped at a strip mall halfway back to town and got lunch, a sushi place with by-the-piece wacky sushi (fried chicken nigiri, pressed sushi with teriyaki chicken, chunks of cooked teriyaki salmon on a nigiri, etc.) and ramen for the girls, and a Pita Pit next door for a good lamb roll up and a feijoa smoothie. We ducked into the Te Arawa fish shop to buy swordfish steaks earmarked for our Christmas dinner, and made a final stop at the Countdown for sausages, corn on the cob, more pancakes, waffles, eggs, cheese, and stuff to make a Christmas dessert. Back at the campsite, Samantha and Helen went into the pool with Robert while Marcus read and relaxed.

That evening we went to Te Puia, a Maori-run cultural site, for a tour of their craft schools, their kiwi sanctuary, their boiling mud pits and their geyser (the largest in the southern hemisphere, we were repeatedly told—just one in a long string of hilarious qualifiers, just like the chip shop yesterday was “world famous in Rotorua").

The tour was great. Everyone learned a lot and Marcus actually said, thoughtfully, “This was far from the worst tour I’ve been on. In fact I think it was one of the best." Everyone tried on Kiwi eksents too (albei usually poorly). After the tour was a show and then dinner, something like a well-done luau in Hawaii. While Marcus and Robert didn’t want to get up to try a haka, Samantha got right up on stage to practice poi, and then we all ate the traditional hangi dinner cooked in a pit in the ground.

It was a late night, and Helen melted down a bit at dinner but then pulled it together enough to go sit on some rock steps heated by the thermal water and have hot chocolate and watch the geyser steam a bunch more. At that point, it started to rain pretty heavily, so we all headed back around 9:30 to the campground and the rivers of mud that were now criss-crossing our front yard. We hung up everything to dry across our little cabin and went to sleep on Christmas Eve very happily, if a little damply.

On Christmas Day, we all woke up around 6:30. It had rained much of the night and this morning it kept raining hard, so we ate in the kitchen building instead of on our front porch. This morning I made scrambled eggs with cheese and herbs for breakfast, with more pancakes and honey on the side.

Then went to St. Faith's Anglican church in Ohinemutu, right by the lake, for their 9:00 service, with the liturgy part in Maori. It was a lovely tiny church with hand-carved pews and pillars and a famous window looking out on Lake Rotorua showing an engraving of Jesus with vaguely Maori features who looks like he’s walking on the water of the lake.

The rain had stopped by this time, and it was just misting a bit. The etching on the window didn't come out in our picture, but you could see the lake beyond, and also some steaming thermal vents in the yard of the church sloping down to the lake. Everyone at the church was very friendly; Helen was in my sling when Robert and I walked up to the front rail to kneel and take Communion, and the woman priest handed Helen a Communion wafer of her own and kissed her. Helen beamed. It was marvelous to sing Christmas carols on Christmas morning, all the way around the world from Boston, at exactly the same time as the 3:00 p.m. Christmas Eve service was going on at Park Street.

After church we drove around the surrounding neighborhood, turning up and down tiny streets looking at the carved Maori faces on the houses and fence posts, and at the steaming vents and bubbling mud pools in people's yards. We headed to Kuirau Park for their playground, which was wet but fun, and getting less wet as the day went on. I was definitely glad I'd packed rain jackets for Robert and the kids, though! Samantha made instant friends with a number of kids, and she and Helen played for ages on a giant spiderweb thing. There were lots of local families picnicking and setting up Christmas BBQs and coolers, there were decent bathrooms, and also a good water fountain.

We walked around the rest of the park and looked at steaming pools and bubbling mud pits, and then made our way to the public mineral pools, which have a nice ledge to sit on and are about 18” deep. They were beautiful! Though they were too hot for Samantha and Helen, Marcus and I sat there for about half an hour; he read, and I people-watched the combination of foreign tourists and local families enjoy the mineral footbaths too. The girls got in a bit more playground time and feeding some seagulls meanwhile. 

From there we made a quick gas station stop with iceblocks from the dairy attached to it—Robert and I shared a hokey pokey bar with honey toffee clusters, and Helen had a unicorn something-or-other that tasted like a hideous combination of bubble gum and blue cotton candy flavors all swirled together. She adored it.

Since not many things were open on Christmas Day, we went to Heritage Farm for their buffet lunch, along with a few foreign tourists and lots of local families (mostly of the too-many-kids-under-five or too-many-members-over-eighty variety, for whom cooking a big dinner at home seemed a little impractical). It drizzled a bit and then cleared up again, but the kids were happy while we waited for our sitting, feeding some deer and an ostrich that the farm had in pens behind the restaurant and, when the sun really came out in earnest, lounging on the grass before the meal.

The restaurant wasa positively cacophonous space, with basically zero atmosphere other than the old pickup truck turned buffet server (it made a big impression on Samantha, at least), but great food, and very laid back. We had pavlova and lolly cakes for dessert, and Robert drank a lot of coffee and everyone found multiple somethings that they liked to eat for lunch.

After lunch we went to Government Gardens for another walk. We saw the cricket pitch and croquet grounds, and we got to watch some lawn bowling in action. Then we walked around a sculpture trail partly around sulfur lake, inspected some more geothermal stuff, and hit up another playground. This one had a great zipline that Samantha enjoyed, although we were still new to Kiwi lingo, and did not yet know that in New Zealand ziplines are called, charmingly enough, flying foxes. 

It was a beautiful sunny afternoon at this point, though they were predicting more rain for the evening, so we hustled back to the campground so Samantha could get some swimming time in. Swimming on Christmas Day--what fun! Well, in theory I suppose; in practice, Samantha and Helen got pool time in, and I watched a five year old almost drown right in front of me. It was really one of those things people describe, where I didn’t know what I was seeing; I thought she was doing that thing kids sometimes do, going up and down, tiptoes and then flat foot, for fun. She was upright and not saying anything; it was absolutely that “drowning doesn’t look like what you think of as drowning” article that makes the rounds of parenting circles every summer, but it was happening right in front of me, maybe ten feet or so away. The child ended up being fine, thank goodness: when we finally figured out what was happening, her dad pulled his phone out of his pocket and tossed it at me (we were talking on the side) and jumped in the pool fully clothed. The only people in the pool had been Samantha, Helen, and these four siblings/cousins, ages two, five, seven, and nine. The nine year old could swim well and was playing catch with Samantha up and down the length of the pool. Helen and the two year old sat on the top step by the side, dangling their legs and talking to each other. The five and seven year olds were messing around by the stairs a couple steps below Helen. It wasn’t clear to me if they could swim or not, but they seemed happy and like they were playing. Meanwhile, their dad (a diplomat from Pakistan, stationed in Wellington, and up here with his family and extended family for a holiday) and I were the only adults around, chatting about assorted things, but also both facing the pool, staring right at the kids as we talked. The five year old went down a step until she was chest deep, and the seven, year old asked his dad if that was okay and the dad said yes. Then she stepped down one more step, and clearly in retrospect, that was deeper than she had intended and she couldn’t stand there, but it took me awhile to figure it out. The seven year old tried to haul her up, but he didn’t call out, and again it looked like they were just playing. I was thinking that she looked weird, but I wasn't sure what was going on and didn’t know what to say. Finally we both figured it out, and the dad jumped in and pulled the girl out of the pool. She coughed a bunch and spat out some water, and then looked shaken (of course!), but sat quietly on the side near Helen and the two year old for a few minutes. Samantha and the older boy seemed unaware of what had happened, and then suddenly the skies turned black and it started pouring again.

That seemed like a good way to end the pool excursion, so we went back to the cabin and changed, and then walked over to the other kitchen building, which had covered grills and a nicer dining area, to prepare dinner. I marinated swordfish steaks and one gurnard fillet in soy sauce from the extra sauce fish we’d gotten at sushi, lemon, and honey, and then Robert grilled the swordfish and I begged butter from a Canadian and sautéed the gurnard. Robert also grilled corn on the cob and sausages that had bacon and cheese in them that Samantha had picked out. I took purchased meringue nests and a purchased chocolate sponge roll (unfilled) and purchased custard sauce and a big slab of good chocolate and made some deserts: melted chocolate added to the custard sauce for a thick ganache, plus banana slices, and crushed-up hokey pokey chocolate clusters, Meringue nests filled with banana slices, topped with custard sauce, with crushed up hokey pokey chocolate clusters on top.

Dinner was so much fun--all festive and international, as the Pakistani family (seemingly completely untraumatized) made dal and a curry, and we shared kitchen and dining space with a Swedish man Robert didn’t like (he was very straightforward), a Québécois family, some Brits, a Korean chef and her husband who now live in Australia, and half a dozen or so other groups. We gave away half of our final swordfish steak and the last half of our cake roll and final meringue nest as we were all stuffed, and Samantha and Helen ducked into the adjoining common room to watch part of "Frozen" with the Canadian and Pakistani children on someone's laptop. Finally we cleaned up, braved the downpour (which hadn’t stopped) to go back and put things away in our closer kitchen and use the bathrooms, and then gave the kids Kinder Eggs with New Zealand/Australian animals, as a final Christmas treat before bed in our little cabin.


Waitomo Caves: Thursday, December 26th

Boxing Day breakfast was our last meal at the campground; I made more scrambled eggs with cheese and herbs and sausages, and we also ate bananas, pancakes, and chocolate chip Belgian waffles we’d gotten in the grocery store. We found a Spanish couple as takers for our extra refrigerated food and headed out of town bound for Waitomo.

We stopped briefly at a power plant and dam to stretch our legs and then unfortunately when getting back on the road (and not having service for a bit) we missed a turn.  By the time we figured it out and tried to correct for it we’d driven for 15 minutes and added another 20 minutes onto the trip. Tricky! But we made it, stopping again briefly as Samantha was feeling carsick, and then stopping for real in Te Kuiti, the home of a five-time world champion sheep shearer, to admire his statue. We all could hear as clear as day the voice of our sheep-shearing friend from the Big E commenting (favorably) on the statue's positioning, of course.

From Te Kuiti, it was only 15 minutes to Waitomo. We had an overpriced, mediocre, and ultimately incomplete (they forgot Samantha's ham-and-cheese toastie entirely) meal in the cafe next to the Waitomo I-Site, but by the time we made it to our cave tour (just barely on time), no one seemed to really mind the meal (or lack of one). The caves were quite frankly fantastic, much more so than I had been anticipating; we ended up doing the triple-tour combo of three different limestone caves, which had at first seemed like overkill, but once you figured in the Ruakuri cave (circular, handicapped accessible, really unique and wonderful--small tour, strictly limited numbers to eighteen people at a time) and the main Waitomo Glowworm cave (biggest, most glow-worms, enchanting boat ride, but touristy and almost Disney-ish in its crowds and numbers), the finalcave, Aranui, was basically free, and ended up being an even smaller group, just five people besides us, with some very striking cave formations (butcher shop? vegetable garden? Yes please!). (Note that there are no glow worms in Aranui, though, because there is no water in the cave.)

Samantha loved how each guide either encouraged singing or else just sang a song in order to demonstrate the acoustics, and the kids learned all about stalactites holding tight to the ceiling and stalagmites on the floor which might grow bigger one day. Of course, we saw glow worms--really, glow maggots, the larvae of flies. They spend nine months in their glowing state, bioluminescent, letting down sticky threads “made from a mixture of snot and wee,” as the guide said, waiting for insects looking for a way out of the cave who were attracted to their light. Then using a sharp tongue they pierce a hole in their prey, vomit up digestive enzymes into it to dissolve its innards, and slurp them up. Basically Marcus and Samantha were utterly delighted with this entire description, and Helen snored through one and a half caves.

No one on the internet had made clear to me that you have to get yourself from one cave to the next, driving 2-5 minutes between them, and that there are no bathrooms at the Aranui cave (though there is a portapotty in the parking lot). It wasn't a very big deal, but it was somewhat poorly explained to us.

After our three caves, feeling like glow worm experts, we made up a song:

The itsy bitsy glow worm
Shot out its sticky thread
It shined its little light 
and waited for its prey
Out came a bug, 
Lost and confused,
And the itsy bitsy glow worm 
Sucked up its prey. 

We went to the nearby Huhu cafe for dinner, where Robert and I shared a really excellent lamb chop dish, the two girls had kids' pastas, and Marcus had the fish of the day (sautéed snapper on gnocchi). We drove back ten minutes down the road toward Te Kuiti to a farm stay (a "loft," supposedly--an entire wing in a lovely home). The kids, who had been tired at dinner, rallied at the gorgeous grounds, the sunset, the rainbow, the sheep ("pets" Fred and Wilma, and then other unnamed sheep), and just the chance to run over lawns with balls. The couple who own the home explained it was their retirement plan--they had downsized from 5000 acres to "just" 60, and now "only" kept a few score cattle for someone else, while their son managed their actual farm an hour or so away.  

Samantha practiced using the Maori "paper plant" to write on, the way the guide from the Aranui cave had told her, and Robert and I availed ourselves of the luxurious shower before all falling asleep on cushy duvets in adjoining rooms.




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Created: 1/6/2020. Last Modified: 1/6/2020.