New Zealand does not do Christmas lights. It is depressing. Most aspects about New Zealand life are very easy to adapt to, but the lack of holiday cheer and the prevalence of bare feet at the grocery store are two things that Katy and I might not get over.
We arrived back from Rarotonga, and Katy had three days of work before Tristan and Lemac came to visit over Christmas. Katy was able to leave her last shift an hour early, and we headed up to meet Tristan and Lemac at a farm AirBnB in the Waitomo district. Kiwi’s have a culture of renting out spare rooms or even spare houses (for some reason the number of spare houses that people have on their properties is way more than you would anticipate), and many have switched from traditional platforms to AirBnB. We arrived at our farm in the middle of nowhere New Zealand (this means it truly is in the middle of nowhere), and Tristan and Lemac with impeccable timing showed up five minutes later. Tristan was ecstatic to see us, but I really think that she was ecstatic to get out of the car after experiencing Lemac’s first attempt at driving on the lefthand side of the road.
After staying up too late recounting the last four months since we had last seen each other, the next morning we headed off to Hobbiton. Katy and Tristan grew up reading the Lord of the Rings and were really excited to see some hobbit holes. I, on the other hand, was reading the books for the first timer, and Lemac had only seen one or two of the movies. There was obviously a very large gap in our respective excitement for hobbit holes. There was some debate as to what time our tour was, and it was decided that it was at 11:25am. We wanted to get there 15 minutes beforehand because they said they would give our spots away 5 minutes before the start time if we hadn’t checked in by then. We have a semi stressful drive in which Katy pretended our Prius was a race car, and we arrived at 11:17am. Well, it turned out that we figured wrong, and we were suppose to be there at 11am for an 11:15 tour. Luck was on our side though, and they gave us tickets for a 12:25 tour. Win. We passed the intervening time with coffees and milkshakes, which was also a win.
Hobbiton was interesting. It is one of those places that the more you like Lord of the Rings the more you will like it. You could tell that in our tour group there were fanatics and others who had never seen the movies or read the books. I have to admit that Katy and Tristan were a lot more pumped than me and Lemac.
We finished up at Hobbiton and spent one more night on the farm. The next morning we headed to Glowing Adventures for some caving. It turns out that it was the first time that Lemac and Tristan had ever been in a cave. Glowing Adventures is not your normal cave tour. There are no improvements in the cave, and so you get dressed up in a sweet costume appropriate for the elements. Lemac and Tristan decided on Glowing Adventures, which coincidentally was the same tour we had done with my parents. We got lucky this time, and it was just the four of us on the tour. It meant that we ended up going to a room that they normally do not take people to. You could tell from how preserved the glowing white cave was that it did not see a lot of traffic. The cave tour was pretty awesome again.
On our way back to our next farm stay we got some real fruit ice cream at our favorite roadside shack, Big Azz. Being from The States I first thought that it was suppose to mean big ass, but I now realize it means big as (Katy: I think it’s meant to be both…). New Zealanders love to add “as” to adjectives, like “sweet as” (the most classic), “spicy as”, “big as”. It took me a while to figure out that they use it to mean “spicy as [the spiciest thing imaginable]”. At Big Azz we got a fruit ice cream, which is fat free frozen yoghurt combined with fruit purée at a 3:1 ratio and whipped together to get a fruit flavored soft serve frozen yoghurt. It is surprisingly good (Katy: I don’t know why Todd finds that surprising. Fruity frozen yogurt is obviously delicious in any context). We then headed off to another farm stay AirBnB. This one was a dairy farm, and we got a pitcher of fresh milk to enjoy in the hot tub that they had.
The next morning we parted ways, and Katy started four days of work. I had the privilege of moving a third time into our mansion. It only has 3 living rooms, a formal dining room, and a snooker (a.k.a. billiards) room. I don’t even really know what snooker is, nor am I really inclined to find out. On Christmas Eve, Katy finished work at 11:45pm, and we started driving to Tongariro National Park where we had rented a cabin for the next several days. At 11:59pm, we promptly pulled over, so that at midnight, Katy could open a present and attempt to be the first person in the world to open a Christmas present on Christmas Day. After doing the countdown, she ripped open her present, with the zeal she always devotes to opening presents, and was rewarded with festive paper straws… Keep in mind that it was 4am on December 24 in LA when she did this. We then continued the rest of the way and arrived at our AirBnb around 3am.
One of my first tasks was to setup our Christmas tree. Our Christmas tree was very, very sad by this stage. It had started out as a grand tree, but it ran out of water while we were in Rarotonga and proceeded to slowly desiccate over the next two weeks. It had lost all of the vigor out of its needles, and they were starting to droop. Nonetheless, Katy insisted we pack it up and take it along to enjoy on Christmas morning. Luckily it had not completely dried up, and only 97 needles fell out while the tree was jammed into the back of Yoshi, our Prius. We put some red balls and a strand of battery powered lights on it and called it perfect.
We slept in the next morning until then Tristan and Lemac arrived. They got about the same amount of sleep that we did, since they were practicing the Brazilian style of celebrating Christmas, which is having a big feast at midnight on Christmas Eve. We proceeded to have a great low key Christmas Day. We opened a few presents. We spent a good amount of time in the hot tub. The hot tub was set to about 104F when we arrived, which was too hot for me, and I was eventually able to negotiate a cooler temperature. We also participated in the Kiwi tradition of BBQing on Christmas Day since it is only a couple days past the summer solstice, and we grilled up salmon and veg.
The following day we had a rather leisurely morning with a little drizzle before we headed off on a hike. We decided that Tama Lakes was going to be our hike of the day. It is located on the south side on Mount Ngauruhoe. You might recognize Mount Ngauruhoe as Mount Doom from the Lord of the Rings movies. Katy and Tristan sure did, and within 100 meters of the trailhead I started to hear the Lord of the Rings theme song being sung.
Part of me was happy when it ended about 500 meters later because I would not put it past those two to sing it the entire 12 miles of the hike. The hike was cool and interesting, but honestly a lot of the hikes in Colorado are more spectacular. Since New Zealand likes its clouds, we were not able to see the summit of Mount Ngauruhoe until we had started our descent. It was a good day hiking, followed by Katy and Tristan trying to get me and Lemac to watch the Lord of the Rings. We both fell asleep (Katy: their loss, it was Epic, as usual).
Our third day in the Tongariro area was our day for the Tongariro crossing. The Tongariro crossing might be the most famous hike in all of New Zealand, and it is definitely the most popular one on the North Island. It is a ~12 mile one way hike with multiple companies offering shuttle transportation from the end back to the start for $35 per person. We decided that we did not want to pay $120 for the shuttle, so I dropped everyone off at the start and went and dropped the car off and took the shuttle. When I say that it is the most popular hike on the North Island, I am not joking.
It is a mess of people. Imagine people stretched out single file for most of the hike, back to back to back, and the trail not being wide enough to comfortably pass people. It was not a pleasant hiking experience in regards to the number of people on the hike. Luckily 95% of the people on the trail headed the DOC’s official advice to do it in the direction that we did it. If not, it would have been that much worse, battling a constant stream of people going in the opposite direction. Saying all of that, the hike itself was fantastic. You walk past lava fields, steam vents, bright red volcanic rocks, sulfur pits, and hoards of slow people.
After an agonizingly slow descent we made it back to the carpark. Our first stop on the way back to the hot tub was to get ice blocks. Yes, ice blocks. I don’t mean the large ones that you carved into ice luges in college. I mean what New Zealanders call popsicles. Katy’s idea, of course (Katy: I hand them out to children at work all the time, I felt like I deserved to enjoy one myself). After we fortified ourselves with ice blocks, we went back to the cabin and enjoyed the rest of the day on the deck and in the hot tub.
The following day was our second-to-last day together, and we had to meet the 10am checkout, New Zealand’s semiofficial checkout time just about everywhere we have stayed. We then started a trek up to Auckland. We discovered that just about every small shop was closed for the holidays. Closed for the holidays here means closed for two weeks (or more), a little different than The States. It is amazing how little business gets done between December 22nd and January 3rd. We spent the day in Auckland, and the next day Tristan and Lemac flew to the South Island to do some exploring on their own. It was a great trip with them.