For the sci-fi/fantasy geeks within both Kenny and I, we couldn’t exactly visit New Zealand without exploring just a bit of Middle Earth. Even from stepping off the plane in Auckland to Lord of the Rings (LOTR) themed murals on the walls, it was clear we were off to have an adventure. From Hobbiton to Mount Doom and all the extraordinary scenery in between, we quested to follow in the footsteps of the fellowship and create our own story – There and Back Again: A Backpacker’s Tale.
Our journey begins on the set of Hobbiton, located in the town of Meta Meta on the north island. This is where all the scenes within the Shire were filmed and helped to set the tone of our story. For non-LOTR fans, it was where the opening scenes for both The Fellowship of the Ring and The Hobbit were filmed.
From the movies, we knew the set would be adorable but in person, it was even more impressive. The hillsides were transformed into a little hobbit town which was much larger than I anticipated. The hills were littered with dozens of hobbit holes (some full sized, some hobbit sized) but what was most amazing was the amount of detail put into the sets. From the flowerpots on the windowsills to the hobbit sized laundry hung out to dry in the breeze, it was full on immersion into a different world. We paid our respects to the homes of our dear old friends Bilbo, Frodo and Samwise before heading off to the Green Dragon Pub for a nice cold ale before setting off on a journey all our own.
I don’t want to get your hopes up that we somehow managed to battle trolls, orcs and dark wizards during our stay in NZs, that isn’t to say we didn’t see a few things that might have deserved a middle earth cameo of their own. In particular, the glowworm caves in Waitomo jump to mind. Imagine an insect a bit like a firefly but stationary and clinging to the roof of a cave deep underground. Now imagine tens of thousands of other insects just like that one covering the ceiling of the cave and glowing a soft blue-green. The effect was that of an endless starry sky. Where there should have been complete darkness, it was possible not only to make out your own hand in front of your face but also to see clearly the faces of the people around you.
Following our quiet boat ride into the glowworm caves, we decided to switch boats and go for a different sort of ride. As Kenny had never white water rafted before, what better place than NZ. We chose the Kaituna River which, though not a sustained and difficult river to raft, does boast the tallest commercially rafted water fall in the world at about 23 feet (7 meters) in height. The photographer poised to take shots of the rafts going over the waterfall had plenty of material from our boat to keep him entertained for the day. As we went over, our guide lost his paddle, I was sucked out the back of the boat and rode out the rapid clinging to a guide rope. Kenny somehow managed to end upside down with his feet waving in the air. All in all, we didn’t earn any style points on that trip, but we still had plenty of fun.
Not quite through with the adrenaline rush, we decided the encore would be to hurl ourselves off a perfectly good bridge. The Kawarau Bridge bungee in Queenstown seemed the perfect choice as we could do a tandem jump from the first commercially available bungee in the world. To honor the bungee tradition, jumps are still done in old-fashioned style with the ankles wrapped in a towel and tied together with webbing.
This was followed up with a drop on the Nevis Swing (“the biggest swing in the world”) with a rope length of roughly 394 feet (120 meters) and a swing arc of almost 1,000 feet (300 meters).
Returning to our quest after the adrenaline distractions of Queenstown, we spent a day hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing which was a moderate 12 mile (19 km) trek through an active volcanic landscape. Two small eruptions had taken place on one of the mountains flanking the trail in August and November 2012 which had resulted in closure of a portion of the trail. Luckily, the full length crossing had been reopened only days before our arrival.
From the trail, there was an optional side trek to the peak of Mount Ngauruhoe (aka, Mount Doom). This trail is really more of a scramble up a 45 degree slope of volcanic scree. However, the view (and the geekly honor of climbing Mt Doom) make it worth the extra effort. Though we didn’t pitch the ‘One’ ring over the crater rim into the mountain, Kenny did (pretend) to launch his wedding ring (for photo ops only of course). We did however meet a guy who had come prepared with a ring to offload – a gift from his ex-girlfriend. We snapped the photographic evidence for him but it makes me think that there is a small fortune to be had in climbing down into the crater with a metal detector.
In case you are wondering what the actual quest in NZ was if not to destroy the One Ring, I won’t fail to disappoint with an answer that is just as nerdy. I was on a bird hunt – and no, not the kiwi (this time). More specifically, I was looking to find New Zealand’s penguins up close and personal. Since our Antarctic trip, I’ve become a bit obsessed and would like to see all 17 species in person if I am able.
Our first attempt was while sea kayaking in the Able Tasman National Park on the south island. Though we didn’t manage to find penguins, we saw an incredible array of other wildlife including a sea lion nursery. The pups were particularly playful on our visit and one of the youngest literally jumped onto the back of our guide’s kayak.
We were successful in finding two of the three species that make their home on the south island – the little blue and the yellow eyed penguins. In a way, this was fitting because the little (blue) penguin is the smallest (weighing in at 2 pounds) and most abundant penguin in the world while the yellow eyed penguin is the rarest. As our New Zealand itinerary seemed to be full of world’s longest, first and tallest, these little record holders fit right in. It might be just a little bit funny to say my heart raced faster for the shy, yellow-eyed penguin that waddled out of the hillside shrubbery in front of us than in the moments just before our bungee jump.
Middle Earth certainly did not fail to disappoint and was as magnificent as I have always heard it described. After a month in the country, my list of things to see and do is longer now than when I arrived. One thing is certain, the country was an adventure and I will certainly have to travel back again to finish this backpacker’s tale.