Carly and I landed in what would be my home base for the indefinite future on July 7th. Considering I was planning on living and working here for up to a year, the immigration process was eerily smooth. I didn’t even interact with a human (except to request a stamp for my passport since they don’t give those out to just anyone anymore). They actually made a bigger deal at customs about the dried mango we had brought from Thailand than anything else. Quickly eating what we could and abandoning the rest in the bin was the hardest goodbye we had experienced up to this point. If you ever find yourself coming to New Zealand, spare yourself the same heartbreak and either eat all of your snacks on the plane or don’t bring any at all. They are super strict about the food that comes into this country.
We had a long bus ride from the airport to the hostel in Auckland. Overall, Auckland was underwhelming, and our time there could be summed up in a few words: authentic NY style pizza, cafes, Mt. Eden, and meeting our Irish roomie, Tess. The second Tess walked in the room I could tell two things: 1) she was a riot and 2) I could see us being good friends. Both of those have held true. Tess had also just landed in New Zealand that morning on a working holiday visa. She was leaving Auckland the same day we were to do some traveling around the country for a few weeks and then planned to settle in Wellington to find a job. It sounded almost identical to my plan, and that was the moment I knew things were going to be alright.
The most noteworthy experience we had in Auckland was picking up our rental car. We sat there anxiously as we went through all of the paperwork and quickly glanced over the driving rules in New Zealand. Everywhere we looked there were constant reminders to drive on the left side of the road. All too soon it was time to actually get in the car and go. I somehow convinced Carly to be the first one to have a go at it. Driving in large cities is stressful enough for me, don’t expect me to function with having everything in the car on the opposite side. We paid extra for a GPS navigator. The best part was asking the guy if it was pretty reliable. He replied, “yes.” I clarified by asking if it ever loses signal. To that he said, “only when it’s cloudy.” Great. It’s winter here and cloudy a good deal of the time. We knew then that we were in for an adventure.
Our first day of road tripping had a pretty packed, tight schedule. We drove off in the car at about 8:30am and needed to be in Hobbiton by our reserved tour time of 11am. We had read that the drive would only take about 2 hours, but when your GPS has it in for you, you get lost several times, and you almost hit a falcon, it is easy to fall behind. To make it worse, there wasn’t a single sign for Hobbiton, and we had no idea if we were headed in the right direction. We were barreling down a country road at 11:10 when we saw our first sign for Hobbition indicating it was just 6km away. By this time, we would have already missed our tour, which wouldn’t be such a big deal if we didn’t have another tour of glow worm caves in Waitomo scheduled later that afternoon. For some reason, I decided to take another look at the tickets, and that is when I saw that our tour was actually at 11:30, not 11. We were going to make it, and we wouldn’t be missing out on the glow worms either.
Hobbiton is exactly how it appears in the movies, except better, because you are experiencing it right in front of you and not through a screen. It is quite a ways removed from any sign of the modern world so you really do feel like you are somewhere in Middle Earth. I would gladly strip Disney Land of its claim of “Happiest Place on Earth” and give it to Hobbiton. The scenery is absolutely breathtaking, everything is cute and my-sized, and they encourage drinking. What more could a girl want?
Unfortunately, we couldn’t linger in The Shire since our agenda was so tight and soon found ourselves back on the road headed for Waitomo. But this time I had to drive. There was a definite learning curve, and I don’t think I relaxed once during the 2.5 hour drive. Just when you think you are getting the hang of it, you turn on the windshield wipers instead of signaling and get put right back in your place for thinking you could ever get a grasp on something so quickly.
We arrived at the glow worm cave tour as the van was getting ready to pull out. Just like hours before with the Hobbiton tour, we barely made it by a minute. It was cold, but we had a beautiful drive through the countryside to the farm where the caves were located. The first one we visited was a cave with many different types of formations and textures – very cool to see, but very cold as well. We had a quick coffee/tea and biscuit break before heading into a much warmer cave full of worms. I am not quite sure how many places in the world have glow worm caves, but they seem to be a common thing here in New Zealand. Thousands upon thousands of worms suspended from the ceiling of the cave all light up to draw insects in to the cave and trap them in a dangling web-like substance. It is the closest thing to a sky full of stars that I have ever seen, and there was something entrancing about it. They even twinkled. After that, we enjoyed a short sunset walk before heading back into town.
Being that we were in the middle of nowhere, there weren’t any hostels near. So Carly and I splurged and booked a motel room. In the 4+ weeks that we had been on the road, this was the closest we had felt to royalty. Don’t get us wrong, it was a basic motel. But after weeks and weeks of staying in hostels and sharing every square inch of space with strangers, this was paradise. We each had a bed, there was a kitchenette complete with a mini bottle of fresh milk for our morning coffee and tea, free internet, TWO heaters, a clean bathroom that didn’t require shower shoes, full sized towels…and to top it off, HGTV and Bravo. It was the happiest and most at home we had felt in a long time. And it was all ours.
We got up early the next morning and hit the road for the long drive to Wellington. We saw a lot of beautiful scenery on the way, including Mt. Ngauruhoe, one of the volcanoes they used in filming Mt. Doom in Lord of the Rings. The inner nerd in me insisted that we pull over for a quick photo op. It was fun until the tripod blew over. The rest of the drive was just as scenic, and we pulled into Wellington after enjoying a beautiful sunset on the way in. We had reached our final destination on the North Island, and I was hoping something about this little city would register in me as home.