Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Day 276 - 279: Wellington

"Windy Welly" lived up to its name for our stay, and then some. We arrived in the rain at lunchtime, where Sharon came from work to greet us and give us a house tour. We were once again impressed and envious of the amount of house-building space available to our antipodean friends compared to the cramped offerings of the UK. An abundance of land (Australia) and a lack of people (NZ) really does increase the options available.

Since Sharon had to return to work, we took a stroll down the road to the Dowse museum, a smallish modern art place with some interesting installations including the last remaining "Pillar of the Kingdom", a storehouse which was built as a symbol of a political initiative - the Maori King Movement. It is the only survivor of seven similar "pillars" which were built.


Other exhibits of note included a herd of fawns with their eyes blindfolded, and a mosaic made entirely out of bits of sticky tape.




A visit to Wellington for any film fan isn't complete without a trip to the Weta cave. Named after the weta, a massive (and I mean massive) insect, the WETA cave has been responsible for some of the most innovative developments in the special and visual effects fields for over 30 years. From early low-budget Peter Jackson schlock horror features such as Bad Taste and Braindead, where the owners were painstakingly making each prosthetic themselves, the workshop has developed and expanded. Weta Digital is now only second to Pixar in the world of digital effects and were responsible for everything from the stunning SFX on the Lord of the Rings trilogy to King Kong, Tin Tin, Avatar and more.









The Weta cave itself is a small shop consisting of a main room filled with props, figurines and other film-related paraphernalia for sale, a "museum" of sorts housing some of the older props, and a screening room where we saw an interesting short film about the workshop's development over the years.

If you come here looking for a full-on film studio with props galore, you'll be disappointed. The actual workshop is off-limits to the public, with only the shop open for visiting - and that won't take you more than an hour if you include the free screening. As an introduction to one of the world's biggest effects studios though, you can't really go wrong.

Since the weather had no intention of improving, we trawled back through the rain and spent the afternoon with Sharon, watching Real Steel. Think Rocky with robots, and you won't be far wrong.

Sharon took us to Te Papa on our final full day in Wellington. This is the main museum of the city (and indeed, the country) and is a sprawling place, not particularly well laid-out, but sometimes half the fun is finding out what you find around the next corner.

The Waitangi Treaty is considered the founding document of the country. Supposedly agreeing terms between English settlers and the Maori natives over the rights of land ownership, the treaty was something of a disaster for many reasons. The main problem was that two versions of the treaty were drawn up: one in English and one in Maori, and the language used in each was so different that it is difficult to reconcile the two; the Maori thought they had agreed to one thing, the English another. So when ol' whitey started stomping around the country, taking land and denigrating the natives, they didn't take too kindly too it. However, it wasn't until the 1970s that the "visitors" were made to realise their error and compensation started getting doled out to the people who lost land and were treated like dirt. The treaty is clearly very important to the country, although a significant portion of the population (white folks, natch) are clearly a little bemused by it and think the thing should be torn up.

In the gallery about the treaty, there was an interactive game which let you become the prime minister and decide how various decisions should be handled about native land rights, and so on, presumably based on previous outcomes and the promises made by winners and losers in the past. The consequences of your choices are then fed into the computer and it decides whether you'd win the next election or not - it seems I'm quite the diplomat; I chose some answers that in normal terms I'd class as "fence-sitting", but it looks like that's what the electorate wants. If you need me, I'll be running New Zealand.  

We also took a nostalgia trip back through the decades to look at how toys and technology have developed, played around with a massive video wall that allowed you to take photos and throw them onto it using Wii-style remotes, and saw a giant squid which has been on display for some time now, and whilst undeniably huge, was starting to look a bit the worse for wear. It is the largest recorded specimen, and was caught by accident as it fed off fish that were caught on a long line.




After a run through the rain to a nearby coffee shop for lunch, Sharon gave us a tour of her office and then drove us along the coast which would no doubt have provided fantastic views on a normal day. It was clear when we arrived at her friends' house for a tea break that it was *not* a normal day, when those same friends exclaimed that they hadn't seen weather so awful for a long time. When the locals of a city reputed for its erratic weather are bemused, it must be a special day. It wasn't any better almost an hour later so we all ran to the car and headed back via a bank, where I failed miserably in getting any Fijian Dollars. It seems that they need to be bought in ahead of time, and they didn't have enough to make it worthwhile.

We spent the afternoon playing with Oscar, Sharon's cat. His temperament is best described as mercurial, as he can be a loving bundle of fluff one minute and a clawtastic hiss-machine the next. Luckily, we didn't see much of the latter.



Sharon prepared a wonderful chicken and bacon casserole for dinner which helped take the edge of the howling winds and torrential rain, and we settled down to watch Hugo - an odd, but enchanting film which actually made Sacha Baron Cohen likeable, so kudos is due to Scorsese on that front.

We took our leave in the morning. There weren't many days left in the North Island, and we had to travel the length of it to get back to Auckland. We had time for one more snap before Sharon went to work. It was great to catch up, and we will hopefully meet again when she visits the UK next October.


Here's a tip: if you're in the Auckland area in a campervan, don't ever stay at Takapuna Beach Holiday Park. An awful, awful campsite, charging a premium but with zero facilities other than a shower block and a kitchen with broken appliances. We were advised to get out of Auckland sharpish, and would have done so if it hadn't been getting late. The area redeemed itself though, as we managed to find Patio Steak House which gave us a three-course meal plus wine for a very reasonable £17.50 each, which was far preferable to eating pasta in the van again. Sometimes you just need to let someone else do the hard work.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Day 275: Taupo Tandem Skydive and the Craters of the Moon

It's hard to believe that hurling yourself out of a plane from 15,000 feet would be on anyone's agenda, let alone backpackers on a budget. Skydiving isn't exactly the cheapest hobby, although I know a couple of people that do it regularly in the UK. Happily, Taupo is the skydiving capital of the world and just as Koh Tao is the cheapest place to learn to scuba dive, Taupo is the most wallet-friendly option if you are feeling a little giddy and want to jump out of a plane. There is the added bonus, of course, that the views of the area - including the magnificent lake of the same name - provide even more bang for the kiwi buck.

It didn't go quite to plan to begin with. Weather plays a fairly important part in skydiving and if there's too much cloud cover then it's simply not possible to jump. The company we had chosen - Taupo Tandem Skydiving - had asked us to call a couple of hours before our 10am jump to ensure things were still going ahead. We must have summoned some English weather over to the island, as the clouds were thick and TTS decided that it was too risky to fly in, so postponed the jump for a couple of hours. As can be expected, this helped our nerves no end.

To take our minds off it, we visited a nearby attraction to kill some time: the Craters of the Moon. These are simply thermal vents which have formed in a smallish area, which has allowed the government to plant a boardwalk, and in true tourist trap style, some local genius has given a fantastical name to the whole shebang in order to draw in the punters. I may be a little harsh here; it wasn't a bad walk by any means, but it felt a little pedestrian after visiting the thermal village only a few days earlier.




There were plenty of chances to get the obligatory "surrounded by smelly steam" and "bubbling mudpool" photos, so we did.







As can be seen, the sky was starting to brighten up and blue sky was peeking through. A phone call to TTS confirmed that, yes, all systems were go for chucking us out of a plane.

We got to the office/airfield and handed over our cash. I decided to splash out on a video and some photos since I probably wasn't going to be doing it again (and definitely not if something went wrong and I splatted in a field). We had plenty of time to get kitted up, and also watch a batch of suicidal folk who were there before us come floating in on their parachutes to a nearby field. The instructors do multiple dives per day - they landed, dumped their 'chutes in the kit area, said goodbye to the people whose lives they had just endangered/saved, and then came over to us to do the whole thing again. As jobs go, it's certainly unique.

"What did you do today, Daddy?"
"Oh, the same thing I did yesterday, sweetie: jumped out of a plane ten times, managed not to die, then came home."

I should mention the aeroplane, or perhaps "sardine tin" would be a more appropriate description. Ever been in a plane where you can't stand up? Me neither. This thing was tiny.


It was soon time to get into our fashionable jumpsuits and harnesses. Oddly, I felt a lot more jittery waiting to go up in the plane than I had the entire time I was waiting for the bungy jump and my stomach was not too pleased with me.


My tandem buddy was Tim, and he was ably assisted by a photographer/videographer Elad who not only needed to concentrate on how close he was to hitting the ground, but also make sure he got some super awesome video and photos of me looking super awesome and doing lots of super awesome things (it later turned out that these were mainly falling and whooping).

Gilly's instructor was a guy called Brad Rock, a name more suited to professional wrestling. He was great at putting her at ease though, with his comments such as "Oh, that doesn't look good." and "Hmm, I think this strap is supposed to be done up." Sounds odd, but it seemed to work a treat; she was laughing too much to worry about dying.

There are a few options for skydiving - you can either go to 12,000 feet which gives you about 30 seconds of freefall, or 15,000 feet which lasts for about 60 seconds. There's only one way to go, of course, which is as high as possible. This is what we chose.

Choosing a higher jump means that you have to wait in the plane and watch everyone else who is doing a lower altitude jump go before you. Seeing people literally fall out of a plane is a surreal experience, and it's at this point that the reality of what you are about to do kicks in. My buddy started attaching clips and buckles to me as we ascended close to the jump level. In the plane we were all sat down, jumpers in front of their instructors. This is how much space I had after a couple of people had bailed out.


Gilly was right at the back and one of the last to go. Soon enough it was my turn, and I barely had time to grin manically for the exit photo before Elad clung to the outside of the plane and Tim pushed me out....and we were all falling.


The first thing to get released is a small chute to slow down the descent for you to enjoy maximum freefall time.







Taking in the North Island from the air is beyond words. Lake Taupo stretched out in its huge entirety, and in every direction I could see tiny forests and settlements; it was like looking at a map. How did it feel? The best word to describe it is "safe". This is probably counter-intuitive given what I was actually doing (plunging to the ground), but it was less an adrenaline-filled screamfest and more of a comfortable, exhilarating experience. At no point was I worried that something might go wrong; it was completely different to bungy jumping and I had complete confidence in Tim's abilities to land us safely.

After a minute of freefalling, during which the cold air was literally pulling the tears out of my eyes faster than I could create them, the main parachute was released and we descended at a more sedate pace which allowed us to take in the incredible surroundings. The world's horizon actually appears curved rather than flat from the sky, and I am beginning to understand the interest in space tourism.


Tim then let me take the reins - literally. I was able to steer the parachute left and right by pulling down on the opposite cord, and it made us spin around so quickly that I actually felt queasy. I was pretty relieved once we stopped spinning and just started descending. Tim pointed out various landmarks but I was so overwhelmed by having jumped out of a plane that I must confess I couldn't recall them if you paid me. Except for the lake. That was pretty big.

It was soon time for the splashdown. Possibly broken legs aside, it was simple: stick your legs out and into a seated position, and land on your backside. Sounds painful, but it really wasn't. Gilly showed everyone up by landing in an upright position. I think she may have a stunt role in the next Bond film.

The compilation video of our jump is below - even though Gilly didn't buy the pack she is still on the video, which is great.

The comparison between bungy jumping and skydiving is interesting. For me, the former is far more terrifying. Perhaps it's the necessity of actually making the jump yourself, rather than being pushed. Maybe it's the risk of getting everything from detached retinas to dislocations even if the bungy jump goes correctly compared to, hmm, smashing in a bloody heap. It could be the lack of someone jumping with you who you could feasibly flip over and use as a human pillow if the parachute failed. Whatever the reason, if it's a terrifying rush you're after then bungy jumping is for you. If you want to see the world from a great height but still feel protected, skydiving is the way to go.

It was over, we'd survived, and we had the certificate to prove it.


Nothing builds up an appetite like a minute of freefall, so the TTS staff kindly pointed us in the direction of Burgerfuel, where a cheeseburger with jalapenos ominously named "The Burner" awaited me. It tasted like life, although the cow probably didn't think so.


A quick pint at a local bar was next to nab some wi-fi and plan our next stop. We were going to be staying in Wellington with my former work colleague Sharon, a native Kiwi who had been working in the same UK company as me on a visa, and had returned home a couple of years ago. After making sure everything was fine for our arrival, we drove most of the way down south from Taupo and through Taihape - the gumboot capital of the world - before finding a holiday park for the night.


Saturday, October 20, 2012

Day 274: Rotorua Luge

Rotorua's luge is a go-kart track, where the go-karts are motorless plastic toboggan on wheels, with a metal pipe planted between the front axle to act as a brake. Legend has it that the chap who came up with the idea used his granddaughter as a guinea pig and took her up mountains with a kart and then picked out possible paths to navigate through, before they both hurled themselves down the slopes. The North Island's tracks were such a success that another was opened up in Queenstown. Since we didn't get the chance to do it there, we didn't want to miss the opportunity and Gilly had it pencilled in the moment we heard about it.

There are three tracks to choose from - beginner, intermediate and advanced, with differing gradients. Since the queues for the tracks can take up to 10 minutes, and since the luge rides themselves can take anywhere between 5 and 10 minutes to complete (depending on if you stop to take photos - which you can only do on the beginner track), and since the gondola that takes you from the finish point back to the top takes another 10 minutes, you're looking at a good 3 hours if you buy a 5-pack of luge rides.

The views from the top were, as expected, sublime.



If the luge sounds perilous, it is. You get given a helmet and...that's it. The rest of the safety is left up to you.




Steering too sharply may see you go around a corner on two wheels, or worse, come off completely. It is highly recommended to wear gloves and something a little more padded than a t-shirt. Gilly found this out the hard way. Keen to keep me at bay, she sped along the track a little too eagerly, and hit a rut in the track which sent her off the kart and belly first onto the road. I came around the corner to see her rolling along the middle of the track. Fortunately the only lasting damage was to her hoodie and to her gloves, which thankfully took the brunt of the impact. I wouldn't have liked to see the state of her hands if she hadn't been wearing them.


It's also a good idea to keep your luge tickets stashed away in your pockets. They have a nasty habit of falling out when you're sat in the gondola, as the multitude of tickets strewn over the rocks below can attest to.

The luge is great fun, but more tiring than you might think. The tracks are well laid out and provide plenty of dips and slopes to keep the kart moving quickly which will please the speed demons, but you should keep away from the sides of the tracks if you can, as these don't appear to have been as well maintained - as Gilly found out!

On our way down to Taupo, we stopped at Huka Falls, a smallish waterfall which is home to one of the many jetboating companies found throughout NZ (this one is appropriately named "Huka Falls Jet"). The Shotover Jet is possibly the most well known jetboat experience, which is naturally found in Queensland. The concept is the same throughout though, and the scenery is the only difference; you get into a boat and it speeds along before spinning around and soaking you. The whole trip lasts for about 20 minutes and is an exorbitant price considering what you are actually paying for. Still, the punters on this one seemed to enjoy the ride. 



We stopped at a park near Taupo in the afternoon and I found a payphone and made a booking for the third major NZ activity (after skiing and bungy jumping) we had planned to do from the very beginning of our trip: skydiving. If plummeting to the ground attached to an elastic band wasn't hardcore enough, we thought that being strapped to someone and relying on a nylon canopy and a few bits of cord might provide the ultimate adrenaline rush.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Day 273: Whakarewarewa Thermal Village, Rotorua

The Whakarewarewa Thermal Village is an active Maori village situated atop a volatile set of thermal springs. As with the rest of Rotorua, the smell of sulphur hits you once you leave the vehicle, but you soon get used to it. Entrance is through an imposing arch and over a bridge - we arrived just as a tour was starting there, so tagged along. The first thing we learned about were Penny Divers: kids up to the age of 14 who traditionally jumped from the bridge into the river to collect pennies thrown by tourists. They put them in their mouth to keep them safe once they'd collected them. The Queen came to visit the village the year after her coronation and chucked some in, which went down well with the locals although they were probably expecting rubies or doubloons or something a bit more extravagant from a monarch. These days, the kids don't really jump from the bridge, instead lowering themselves in from the bank (health and safety and all that) and the pennies have suffered from inflation and now nothing less than a gold coin ($1 or $2) will suffice. How the times have changed. Our guide Waimaria took us to a Hangi box which is a method of cooking food by storing it in a box above a thermal hole, or actually burying it underground.



After a few hours, meat and veg is thoroughly cooked and you can even cook food from frozen. Whilst hangi meals are a traditional way of preparing food, the locals use ovens and microwaves in the village, and leave a lot of the hangi food for tourists. We were advised against it by the guy running the holiday park we stayed at, as it's fairly stodgy (meat, meat, and more meat). Other villages probably do nicer hangi meals, but then the entry fee is likely to be about 5 times the price. There are various pools and mud springs around the village, all with different names. Parekohuru means "murderous ripples", but is more commonly known as the champagne pool due to its bubbling surface; it's the biggest hot spring in the village. We tried some corn on the cob cooked in the pool, and it was fantastic. Given the lack of thermal springs in the UK, we'll definitely have to invest in a steamer when we return.


The sulphur deposits cause the mud to turn into different colours around the village, more often than not a shade of yellow.


Korotiotio is the most volatile spring in the village, with its name translating to "Grumpy Man". The steam given off by the spring is insane, covering the paths around it depending on the direction of the wind at any one time.


As part of the tour, we got to experience a traditional Maori performance which included various dances, some of which utilised sticks which were tossed between the participants, and others which used "poi" or flax balls attached to a length of twine which double as both musical instruments bounced off hands to keep a beat, and an almost artistic dance tool that can be whirled about.


We were treated to "double poi" at the end, where the women took two poi in each hand and span the four of them about without them hitting each other or the other performers. Even more impressive was the haka performed by the men. Us Brits have probably only seen the haka at the start of a match when the All Blacks are playing, but having it done right in front of you is pretty special, bulging eyes, massive tongues and all. The people are exceptionally friendly, and more than happy to pose with you.


There is a great view from the village of two geysers. The smaller of the two is called the Prince of Wales Feathers, whilst the biggest is called Pohutu and can erupt up to 40 metres in height. We didn't see it reach this peak, but it was a sight nonetheless. In warmer summer weather you get to see more of the actual water erupting, as the cool winter air almost immediately turns the eruption to steam.


The mud pools reach temperatures between 80 and 90 degrees Celsius. Alas, we weren't allowed to take a dip. I hear that mud does great things to your skin, but at that heat it would probably just slough it off. Great for cannibals, not so great for me.



The village was a decent day out, and reasonably priced. There are a lot of "cultural performance" attractions in and around Rotorua which may or may not be better than Whakarewarewa, but if you're looking to encompass the main aspects of the area (geysers, thermal springs, haka and poi performances) in one day, then this is probably the best option. We attempted to drive to the Skyline Luge in the afternoon, but we foolishly took the advice of our sat nav, which took us up a long and winding mountain path before attempting to get us down to the Skyline entrance by sending us over the edge of the cliff face and down through a forest (presumably tumbling, A-Team-style, in our van). I have no idea why it thought there was a road there, but we thought better of it and drove back to the holiday park, getting some snaps of the view over Rotorua en route since we were up in the mountains.


We decided to leave the Luge until the next day, and instead fed some very grateful ducks in the park in the evening. I've yet to meet a duck that wasn't starving.