Saturday, October 20, 2012

Hobbiton, Matamata, North Island, New Zealand

The weather, cold, wet, and windy, dampened some of our plans for hiking on the North Island, but the day we scheduled to visit the Hobbiton set near Matamata turned out to be sunny, with occasional strong gusts of wind. We arrived at the Shires CafĂ© and after a few minutes wait, boarded a bus to take us and about twenty others onto the Alexander’s ranch which Peter Jackson had picked out to build the Hobbiton set for his movies: the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the Hobbit movies.
To get all the equipment out to the area of the farm picked (a place with a lake, a large party tree, hills that resembled JRR Tolkien’s descriptions, and no evidence of modern society) a serviceable road had to be built. The New Zealand army was recruited for this task and once done, the set construction began.

The sets for the first movie were built mainly from plywood and Styrofoam and wouldn’t stand the test of time and so were mostly torn down after the filming was completed. For the Hobbit movies the construction was made to be more permanent. Bricks, wood beams, stone, and cement were used to build the Hobbiton that stands today. Great care was taken with all the details. Real pegs were used when nails painted to look like pegs would have sufficed. Real arcing branches, hewn into the visible beams for the tops of the Hobbit holes were used to increase the authenticity of the fronts of the holes. Each door was designed to be able to be opened so Hobbits could be seen going in and out or looking out from the doorways. Most of the Hobbit holes have very little interior space. There are 44 doorways and 48 chimneys but no fireplaces inside the mounds. Each day of shooting involved lighting and placing smoke pots inside the chimneys so each would be smoking for the camera.

A special item that Peter Jackson needed was an evergreen oak tree. There were none available in New Zealand of the size that he needed (all were deciduous) and he couldn’t get one from overseas, so he built one. The oak on top of Bag End Hill is fake. Each leaf on the tree was put on by university students on holiday. During the spring winds a lot of the leaves have been blown off, leaving the tree half bare. For any additional filming that may need to be done, new leaves will have to be made and put back on. Consequently, the leaves that are laying around Hobbiton that have come from the “oak” are available to take as souvenirs. Danny, our guide, said that each leaf probably cost the studio about ten dollars. (I don’t know if this is true or not.)

We had a great time walking around the Hobbit town, peering into windows, looking through doorways, squeezing into a Hobbit hole, and listening to which scenes were shot where, and how they arranged Gandalf’s arrival and the streets his wagon traversed. They were not connected, but shot at different locations around the set, but nevertheless, looked continuous in The Fellowship of the Ring. Both Cindy and I agreed, this was the best part of our trip to New Zealand and leaves us with a very positive impression of the time we spent here.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Taupo, North Island, New Zealand

Our day began early, as we headed toward Picton on the north end of the South Island. Our first surprise came only a few minutes after we left our accomodations in Kaikoura: a fur seal was hitching a ride along the highway. (Well, not actually, but it did look like it.) We arrived at the Interislander facility over an hour early and waited to drive our rental car on board the Atares.
The Atares, the ferry we boarded, was cut completely in half in dry dock just over a year ago, had thirty meters added to her midsection, and welded back together.

While on board, I purchased a Wi-Fi certificate, and uploaded photos to Facebook and to my blog page. Unfortunately, during the past week, I had forgotten that I had lost my after-hours check in information for our condo in Taupo when all my email had disappeared in Australia. I had forgotten to copy down the information from the email from Lakeside Villas.

Thank the Lord that I met a very helpful woman, Amanda Thatcher, who worked in the gift shop on board. I planned to purchase a phone card for their pay phone, but she got permission for me to use the ship’s phone to call our condo in Taupo. I got through the first try and got the code for the lock box so we could get access to the key to our unit. I found out that she loves Facebook, and she is now my first Kiwi Facebook friend!

The ship’s galley offered American hotdogs on their menu so I thought I’d have one since it’s been quite a while since we’ve been home. Perhaps to a Kiwi what I was served tastes like a hotdog, but to me it was quite tasteless; like biting into a sausage with substance but no flavor at all. The bun, ketchup and mustard were about the same as in the US but I had to throw out the hotdog after one bite, I just couldn’t stomach it. But it kind of proves a point about the food in both Australia and New Zealand—a lot of it is very bland, made without many spices, salt, pepper, or sugar. (We’re pining for the food we’re used to—which isn’t to say that the food here isn’t good, it’s just different from America.)

We docked in Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, after a three hour crossing that was rough at times. The wind was blustery, especially through the channel between the islands, where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean. Once back on the highway, we headed north to Taupo. It was a fairly uneventful drive. New Zealand probably has only about 100 miles of four lane roads in the entire country. All national highways, like SH 1, have two lanes and most of the time you are driving left or right around curves or up and down mountains and hills. The speed limit is 100 KPH which is a touch over 60 MPH, but the Kiwi’s drive much faster around the curves than I felt comfortable doing.
The most prominent geological figure between Wellington and Taupo is Mount Ruapehu. (Don’t ask me how to pronounce it. The names in New Zealand are harder to say than those in the Old Testament.) It’s an extinct volcano that covers an enormous area and extends 2797 meters (close to 9000 feet) high. The top is covered by snow and clouds swirled around the peak as we caught glimpses of it as we drove to the tops of some of the hills that surround it. It’s part of Tongariro National Park, which is a big ski area for the Taupo region.

The city of Taupo sits on the northeast corner of Lake Taupo which is about thirty miles wide and thirty miles in length; the largest lake in the North Island. (Alana, our Lord of the Rings guide, said that New Zealanders are very literal. When they give a place a name, they don’t use a lot of imagination, thus: North Island and South Island for the two main islands of New Zealand.) Most of the names of places in New Zealand were named by the Mauri people who came to the islands in 1251 AD from Hawaiki. (I think that’s the correct place.) I’m not sure that all of their names are that much more imaginative either. Today we toured the Waitomo Glow worm cave and we found out that in the Mauri language wai means water and tomo means hole: thus—water hole is the name of the cave. (A small river runs through the cave.)

Monday, October 15, our first full day in Taupo, we spent getting ourselves organized for the rest of our holiday. The one place we did visit was Waikato Falls (The word for water is in this again.) which is just north of Taupo. Water from Lake Taupo flows north and there are at least seven hydroelectric stations along its length that provide 15% of New Zealand’s energy. The large majority of power generated here is hydroelectric, geothermal, and wind. The air and water are very clean here and the Kiwi’s want to keep it that way. The falls are only about twenty or thirty feet high, but an enormous volume of water flows over them through a narrow limestone channel.

Tuesday, since the weather report was for a mostly sunny day (what the weather reporters call fine) we decided to travel about two hours northwest to Te Kuiti to visit the Waitomo Glow Worm cave. Glow worms make their nests on the top of the cave above the river. They create “fishing lines” from mucus and drop the threads about six to twelve inches from the ceiling. The water brings insects, mosquitoes mostly, into the cave and they are drawn by the light the glow worm emits. Once caught on one of the lines, they are hauled up by the worm swallowing the line and the captured bug. Glow worms use the same chemicals to create their light as do fireflies, but their light is steady. Inside the cave, the glow worms look like stars in the heavens, the roof is just covered with them and there is utter silence in their environment—pretty eerie in a way, but beautiful and unique. Glow worms exist in New Zealand, Australia and Tasmania, but nowhere else on earth. They were quite an inspiring sight.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Rainstorm/Snowstorm: Driving from Queenstown to Kaikoura

Cold, dripping rain, and dampness greeted us on Saturday morning, October 13th when we got up. After checking in at the desk, the hostess informed us that we may need chains to get through the mountain passes to the east. Having only driven is a small amount of snow before, the announcement spoiled my breakfast before I’d even had to chance to eat. “Chains?” I asked. “I’m from Florida, I’ve never driven with chains!” 

I did manage to eat a little breakfast before we caught the bus to the airport to pick up our rental car. Not only was I going to be driving on the wrong side of the road, through the mountains, but it was raining already and snow was expected. I made certain there was a set of chains in the trunk before we left the airport and turned east into the mountains. The rain continued, steady and fully encompassing the entire region, and as we gained elevation, it melded into show showers, and finally, into full-blown snow. As we reached the top of the pass, ice began to form on my windshield wiper arms, and snow had collected on both the sides of the road and the highway itself. We passed a snowplow on the side of the road, the crew most likely taking a break. Shortly after we crested the top of the pass and headed down, conditions improved somewhat, the snow disappeared, and full rain returned.

We drove for ten hours, through continuous rain and strong, gusty winds, maneuvered through some partially flooded roads and arrived in Kaikoura, on the Pacific Coast at about 7:00 PM. Route One follows the east coast for quite a distance, but at times it turns west and snakes through the coastal mountains that run right along the coast. They rise nearly 7,500 feet high and the ocean is as much as 3,800 feet deep only 500 feet from shore. It’s a dark, ebony volcanic beach and rock strewn, dangerous surf, with the two lane highway winding close to the wind swept waves and through several single lane tunnels. A tremendously wondrous and beautiful drive, but you dare not take your eyes off the road for more than a couple of seconds.

Kaikoura is world-famous as a whale watching destination, but neither boats, helicopters, nor planes ventured out in the type of rainy, gale thrashing winds that swept the whole of New Zealand on Saturday.

Tomorrow we head north again to Picton, where we will board a ferry for the three hour trip across the Cook Straight. The forecast for tomorrow: morning showers and snow in the central highlands of the North Island, but clearing in the afternoon.

And the Lord came and stood, and called as other times, "Samuel, Samuel." And Samuel answered, "Speak, for your servant hears."  1 Samuel 3:10

Port Macquarie, New South Wales

Smoke delayed the train we were to take by four hours so the rail company hired several coaches to transport all the passengers to their destinations.

An hour and a half south of Brisbane we drove through a series of steep, rolling hills and rises. There were a lot of good opportunities for some great views as we passed through. Banana plants, and macadamian nut orchards and pasture lands were the predominant uses of the land.

We met a wonderful man from Port Macquarie on the bus, named Richard. If not for the smoke that delayed our train we would have never met him. He had a ticket for first class but having to take the bus threw us together one seat behind the other. We spent about eight hours together on the bus and when we reached Port Macquarie he offered to drive us to our Vacation Village condo. It’s just another example on our vacation of how God seems to be making our way easier.

One of the most pleasant surprises of our stay in the Port were the birds—the kind of birds that you would usually see in an aviary in the US: cockatoos, cockatiels, magpies, parrots, parakeets, kookaburras, and one which had a voice like a flute or panpipe, the Butcher Bird. The first night we forgot to close the windows and were awakened at 4:45 AM by a kookaburra outside our window. If you don’t know what a kookaburra sounds like, please find an audio file and listen and you’ll know how we felt being woken up by one.

Since we were staying about a mile out of town and the bus service was scant, I decided to rent a car. The closest dealer was about two and a half miles away—only one blister from walking there—but it allowed us to move around much more easily than we otherwise could have.

On Sunday, October 7th, (Your Saturday afternoon) I got up early and connected to the internet so I could listen to the Gators play LSU. WRUF-FM carried the play-by-play by Mick Hubert, the voice of the Gators: Oh My! It was a great game. Shortly after it was over, we attended a church service at the Port Macquarie Presbyterian Church. Scott, the pastor, had a good message from Revelation. (He preached almost like a Baptist, Barry!)

Sunday afternoon we visited a koala hospital and learned how a group of mostly volunteers help to rehabilitate and return injured or ill koalas to the wild. It was sad to see how some of the koalas arrived at the hospital but was heart-warming to see how most of them recovered and were able to be returned to their home territories. The ones that are too injured to be returned are kept at the hospital until the end of their lives.

On Monday we drove a few miles west to the Billabong Koala and Wildlife Park. You’ve seen some of the photos on Facebook that I posted there. (At least I hope you have.) It was a smaller park, maybe fifty acres or so, with a relaxed atmosphere and a good variety of indigenous species, and they offered several opportunities to get up close to the animals.

We started off by buying some kangaroo food (mostly cracked corn) to feed the wallabies and kangaroos. It was an amazing experience. I never expected to get so close to the native animals. Following that, we got to pet a koala, a dingo, and a fluffy frog-beak. (A native owl species.) We got a look at a lot of other Australian animals at the park before we headed back to our condo.

On the way back to Sydney on the last day of our stay in Australia, I happened to look over at a golfer walking up on a green to putt, and saw that the rest of his foursome were three kangaroos! I would have liked to watch what happened on the green but the train moved on south and they vanished behind a clump of eucalyptus trees. (Guess the kangaroos carried their clubs in their pouches.)

And He said unto them, "But who do you say that I am?" And Peter answered and said, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Mark 8:29

New Zealand—Queenstown

The Queenstown area was completely covered with clouds when we flew in. Once the jet got below the level of the clouds, we got our first look around. We were nearly even with the tops of the surrounding mountains before the plane ducked below the layer of clouds.

Once again, the runway was only just long enough. The plane had to use a full reverse of engines and brakes to come to a stop before the end of the runway. We exited down stairs onto the tarmac and walked inside for a short customs check. Once in the lobby, I decided to use the ATM to get some cash in New Zealand currency. No luck, the ATM wouldn’t dispense any funds. We learned two days later, after three calls to our credit union, that our debit card would not work in New Zealand. (Even though originally we were told it would.) Luckily, we were able to get a cash advance on our credit card on our third day in Queenstown.
Our second day, we arranged for a tour of Milford Sound on the southwest coast. The total time for the trip was about twelve hours. Five hours to the sound, an hour for lunch, two hours cruising out to the Tasman Sea, and a four hour return trip. On the way out, we stopped at several scenic spots for photos, while on the way back, we simply drove to get back to Queenstown.

Two days after we took our tour, a heavy snowstorm hit the Milford area and caused an avalanche above the highway, bringing down tons of rock and trees. Some of the boulders are so large, holes will have to be drilled for explosives so they can blow them up and remove them. This could take several days. Some tours were trapped at the sound during the bad weather and may be trapped there until the road is opened. (Two days later and that could have been us!)

Our Milford Sound cruise was quite chilly and somewhat overcast, but the scenery was extremely beautiful. (as you can see from the photos posted on Facebook.) We enjoyed the commentary of Ian McIntosh, our tour guide, as he was knowledgeable about the history, legends, animals, botany, and current affairs of the area.

The following afternoon we took a half day, Lord of the Rings tour around Queenstown. We learned from Ian, the day before, that the third largest industry of New Zealand, after agriculture and tourism, is movie production. They have an abundance of beautiful scenery at a reasonable price, compared to other countries. Not only were many of the scenes of the Lord of the Rings trilogy filmed around the Queenstown area, but also some from The Hobbit, Wolverine, and Narnia. We were able to view a number of the locations where scenes were shot. One scene from Wolverine, which some of you may remember, was filmed on a one way bridge, supposedly in Canada. New Zealand has hundreds of single lane bridges and the roads at either end are marked with arrows designating which side of the road you should return to. You drive on the left in New Zealand, in Canada it’s the right. If you remember the scene, Wolverine moves his truck to the right, but the arrow is plainly visible, directing drivers to the left. The scene is obviously not shot in Canada—a minor blooper.

The one lane bridge leads onto the Paradise Ranch and Sheep Station, a thousand acre spread completely surrounded by a national park. Jim ?, (can't remember his last name.) the owner, charged Peter Jackson, (a native New Zealander from Wellington) three thousand dollars a day to use his ranch to set up and film several scenes from the Lord of the Rings, and later, The Hobbit. Locals from Queenstown, (about 30 percent of the population of 13,000, were movie extras, orcs, and uruchi. Horsemen from all over southern New Zealand formed a group of 250 riders that appeared in many of the scenes of the LOTR. Peter Jackson simply had them digitally duplicated in the larger groups needed. (Next time you watch, see if you can pick out the copies!)

Our whole LOTR tour was wet. It rained the entire afternoon, and clouds hung so low over the mountaintops that some of the locations were practically invisible. The last ford in one of the streams our four-wheel drive was going to cross, was too deep so we were unable to see Chinaman’s Bluff. Our guide, Alana, told of the time after gold was discovered in Arrowton, the next city east from Queenstown, and several Chinese men tricked some white miners into abandoning their claims in Arrowton in favor of some out on the other side of Paradise. They succeeded and moved to Arrowton where they staked valuable claims while the white miners were duped—thus Chinaman’s Bluff. It was a kind of payback for their earlier bad treatment by the white miners.

On the way back, we stopped in the Mount Aspiring National Park, got a look at the tree that inspired some of the ent faces in The Two Towers, walked through the woods where Boromir was shot and Pippin and Merry were captured by the Uruk-hai, and also sampled an edible leaf that was as spicy as a jalapeno. We needed a cool drink to wash the heat our of our mouths! All-in-all, it was an incredible two days of sightseeing and soaking up as much of the culture and history of the area as we could.


And God will wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.      Revelation 21:4