Friday, October 17, 2008

New Zealand: From Auckland to Rotorua

Alright. Since I got me a few free minutes, finally, I'll try to tell y'all about New Zealand.

So, for dinner the last night in Auckland, we stopped in at a pub called the Viaduct St. Grill. Not bad, as pub grub goes. I had to choose between a roasted pork dish and something called Jungle Curry. Well, I've had plenty of pork, so I opted for the curry, a sweetish, sticky combination of sticky rice with curried prawns and chicken. Absolutely delish. I got an appetizer of cheesey garlic bread, too, which I shared with the folks we were traveling with. The Otter got green-lipped mussels, which were already opened, sparing him any embarrassing need to break them open on his chest. The Other Half got scallops wrapped in bacon, a fave of his, but that was just an appetizer. He'd asked for a venison dish, too, but there was a communication issue, and he was denied! No worries, though. We had tons of venison in the days to come.

The next morning, we were up early and off on our bus to Rotorua in the center of the North Island. It's also the center of Maori culture, so we were excited to learn more about the locals. On the way, we stopped at a farmhouse for a home-hosted lunch/afternoon tea. Lots of tasty tea dainties, including pumpkin soup, savory beef sandwiches, scones and clotted know. Just a snack.

We also stopped at a local grocery store to check out local snacks. I grabbed some lamb and mint flavored potato chips, which were okay, but not spectacular. The Otter got short-rib flavored rice-chip Pringles. Weird. The Other Half became addicted to a funyon-like snack called Burger Rings. They would be something of a standard in the days to come.

We arrived in Rotorua only by passing through the general area of Matamata, where the Lord of the Rings movies had filmed the Hobbiton sequences. Beautiful, rolling hills with tons of sheep and lambs (since it was their Spring.) Rororua is in a huge volcanic caldera, complete with a vast crater lake. It's on the volcanic plateau, so it smells vaguely gunpowdery at all times. After a lovely walk through a Redwood Forest, we arrived at our hotel, the Royal Geyserland Hotel. Good name for it. Maybe fifty yards outside our windows were a bubbling mud pool and the Pohutu Geyser, which erupts nearly constantly, or at least puts out a huge amount of steam. Easily one of the coolest hotels I've ever been in.

Dinner was in the hotel restaurant. Our bus driver grinned at me and told me to sit in a particular seat. I was suspicious, but I did it. Turned out, it was the "lucky seat" and I had won a bottle of Merlot. I chuckled and happily shared it with him and then with everyone else. I suspect he knew I'd do just that.

The next day, we headed off to Mt. Tarawera, an extinct volcano that's part of the Maori lands. We drove to the top in a 4x4 vehicle and then took a look around. We had two options...walk along the crater's edge or descend. So, what the Hell. Down we went, skating along a scree field. Essentially, you had to slowly allow gravity to ski you down over loose rock. A fall would be back, but you also sink in, anchoring you somewhat. It's a very curious way to travel. Once down, however, there's always the problem of going back up. We walked the length of the crater, as our guide told us about the explosions that had destroyed the local area in the late 1800s. When time came to climb out, it was exhausting for me. I'm a big, fat bear, and the scree was not my friend, nor was the thin mountaintop air. I was huffing and gasping, sliding back one step for each two I took. With a lot of support from the Otter and the Other Half, I hauled my fat, bear butt out. I'm super-glad I did it, but it really made me reaffirm my intentions to lose weight.

After checking out Rorotua Center for a while, we grabbed a smallish lunch. We stopped at a place called the Fat Dog (hey, Fat Dog, Happy Bear) for drinks, but I saw kumara fries on the menu. This awesomely tasty variant on the sweet potato was already becoming a favorite. We were trying to figure out what was odd about the cream cheese that was served with it when a familiar note struck my palette...sheep's milk. It was sheep's milk cream cheese. Very good, actually. We split those, then had some dessert in the form of a traditional English style boiled pudding...chocolate and rapsberry to be precise.

How soon we learned our folly...that evening, we visited Te Puia, a Maori center. After learning some cultural information and getting to see a live Kiwi Bird (a creature I instantly fell in love with...more later), we were treated to an afternoon "tea" cooked in a geyser! Besides the beer, wine, tea, coffee, and bread, there were mesh bags of mussels, corn, and prawns that were dropped into the geyser for 5 minutes, which made them perfectly cooked. We were already stuffed, and it wasn't quite dinner time.

Afterward, we were part of a Maori cultural performance. This included a traditional Maori greeting..consisting of a Maori warrior posturing and threatening our "Chief" in this case, you guessed it, the Other Half. After this test was done, there was song, dance, and demonstrations of the poi ball - a leather ball on cords used to keep rhythmic time - and the haka - a Maori war dance full of specific postures and facial expressions with protruding tongue and bulging eyes. Maybe some of the others felt ridiculous, but I felt like I was channeling some Grizzly ancestors.

And then more food! While most folks were off to the buffet, we were served a four course gourmet meal. There was a kumara soup (delicious), shrimp crackers, salmon on toast, pork skewers, lamb...just a delicious meal.

The next day, we stopped at a school that our tour company sponsors and got to interact with a lot of Maori cubs and their teachers. A pretty fascinating stop, I thought. Interesting to see a common thing - education - and how it's handled in different cultures. One thing is sure...these folks do not stint on education.

After that, the plan was to fly from Rotorua to Christchurch and then on to Queenstown to get to our next hotel. Little did we know that no plan for the next few days would survive contact with...the local weather!

More shortly.

- The Happy Bear

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