Leaving Sydney was bittersweet. The weather had changed, so it wasn’t quite like leaving paradise, and we stayed in a horrible hotel. Our flight was quite early the next morning (~7 AM), getting us into Auckland early in the afternoon. Usually you think of New Zealand as being right next to Australia (I call it Australia’s Canada), but it was a 3 hour flight. While we were flying into Auckland, I was able to see the waters below, and they were much more beautiful – clear and green – than the waters I’d seen going into Sydney, Melbourne or Perth. Coming through customs, the Customs Agent remarked upon the number of stamps in my passport, which always makes me happy (it’s happened a few times before).

The ride to the hotel was a bit unusual. We got a taxi from the airport, and we thought the guy might have been taking us for a (figurative) ride, but it appears that there is no real direct route from downtown to the airport. It’s a round about commute, taking you along city streets, and along highways. In an earlier post I talked about our hotel room in Sydney – 5 AM false fire alarms, a ton of mold in the shower (and a toilet in the shower), other peoples short curly hairs on the blankets and pillows, and barely enough room to do a pushup. It was small, dirty and gross. By comparison, our hotel in Auckland was amazing. It was large, very new, spacious, 55″ flat screen TV, separate bedroom, small kitchenette, with stove AND a dishwasher. That’s right, our hotel had a dishwasher. We contemplated cooking up a leg of lamb, but decided to go out instead. Even though this place was quite nice, the broadband was expensive and slow. It was $28/NZ , or about $21 for 100MB of data. I was mighty unhappy, but I paid it. I think I can understand why this country of 4.5 million people on a remote island had slow and expensive internet. Interestingly enough, the IP I was given was from a Korean ISP.

We started walking around the city and getting our bearings. We were near a university, and there were a ton of asian students, and asian restaurants. We wound our way to a Travel Centre, and briefly talked to someone about doing tours. They were closing in a few minutes, and didn’t have the ability to really get us any bookings, since the place they would book with was closed on Sunday, but they did point us to a place in the bus terminal that could help us. We walked over and found a tour that would fit our needs, but we decided to talk about it before booking it. Afterwards, we wandered around until we found a Korean restaurant down a flight of stairs that looked appealing. This food was great, and we were the only non-Koreans in the place, which makes me think the food was authentic.

On Sunday, Justine decided to jump off a building. The Auckland Sky Tower bills itself as the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s vaguely shaped like the Space Needle, or the tower in Toronto. The jump itself was an officially sanctioned event (so she’s still alive.) You suit up and free fall, with cables on your right and left keeping you on track, and slowing you down as you get closer to the ground. It wasn’t quite a bungie jump, but it was pretty exciting. As for me, jumping off of a building isn’t something I ever want to do, especially if I have to pay for it. I’ve come to find out that Justine is fearless. She’s jumped out of planes, bungee jumped, this, and more. I think she’s more Id that I am, but that’s probably not too hard. When she jumps, the first thing you do is jump into space, then dangle off the building for several seconds before plunging to the ground. When she came down, she was beside herself with joy, and I assume adrenaline. The next two girls did it, but they looked somewhat terrified, and neither of landed on their feet. The first of those two had a hard time standing up she was so nervous. The last girl was a 19 year old Indian girl from Australia (I spoke with her family while they were doing their prep work, etc.) She had a bit of Justine in her, and she was equally as thrilled. I think this might tie with the Koala photo for the highlight of the trip for her.

Afterwards, we booked our trip for the next day (Hobbiton!!), bought a All Blacks T-shirt, and walked around the city. Justine developed a crush on the Sky Tower. You can see it from most of downtown Auckland, and she was looking at it all day long. We walked through the University of Auckland, Victoria Garden, along the waterfront, and the rest of downtown.

On Monday we had our tour. It was another one of these long days, and I wasn’t 100% sure of it when we booked it, but it did include a Hobbiton tour. The first place we went was a small town called Matamata, where we transferred to another bus for a tour of Hobbiton. This is the farm where the exterior (and some interior) shots of the Shire, and it was great. I love the movies, and it was great seeing those places (photos will be forthcoming.) There was the tree where Bilbo had his going away party, the various houses, including Bilbo and Frodo’s house, and the house Samwise and his wife shared at the end of the movie. They were also building a some of the set for the Hobbit movie coming up. One interesting bit of trivia was that they imported sheep for the movie. The New Zealand sheep wasn’t the right type for movie. Afterwards, they had a sheep shearing exhibit, which seemed to be an odd pairing. The only good part was that you could feed baby sheep (mutton?) milk. They are cute, and some people had a great time doing it.

After hooking back up with our tour bus, we went to a place called Rotorua. This was a Maori cultural center, build around hot springs. There were some small exhibits, meeting halls, and somewhat extensive hiking trails. They fed us an authentic Maori lunch, and we got some time to wander around. We were supposed to be back at 2 PM, but we had a Finnish woman get lost, or not understand, and we spent 45 minutes trying to find her so we could leave. This ended up annoying everyone on the bus, which made it a little bit less pleasant ride to the next step.

The last stop in our trip was a place called Waitamo Caves. This was a cave used for burial by Maori people in the past, and it’s most famous for the Glow Worms which hang from the ceiling. It started as just a cave, but then we had to get into a boat, and ride/glide to the Glow Worms. They were pretty amazing, and to be in the dark, it made it a pretty awesome adventure. The pacing of this was pretty good, and it was enjoyable. I’d gotten a touch of car sickness, so I ended up sitting in the passenger seat. I talked to the driver most of the trip, and he was a fascinating guy. He graduated with an Economics degree, and worked for the government until he was 40. At that point, he bought some Robert Smith franchises and ran 13 of those. He had a son that played rugby well enough to place for the All Blacks, even though it was only three games. He might have been bullshitting me, but he was pretty sharp, and was able to talk about a wide range of subject, so even if he was, I enjoyed it. He’s now retired, and does this so he can make some extra money, so long as it doesn’t interfere with his golf games or other task.

We got back pretty late (45 minutes later than we were supposed to.) We hopped off the bus pretty far from our hotel room because we’d gotten hit by that before. In Perth we were about two blocks from our hotel, but we stayed on the bus. It ended up taking 20 more minutes of city driving to get us back to our hotel (there was a pedestrian walkway that kept our bus from going directly there.) Once off we found sushi for dinner. Auckland had more sushi restaurants than anyplace I’ve ever seen before. I expected more lamb dealers.

We left early the next morning, and got a driver that normally worked for the hotel. He took an equally convoluted route back to the airport. He was a huge All Blacks fan, and once he started talking about it, that was all he talked about, until we were at the airport (about 45 minutes.) Once we were at the airport, we got our first taste of being back in America. We had to go through an additional security check, and be segregated from the rest of the airport, where we were warned against having more than 3 oz of liquids. America, land of the free, home of the brave.