By now it's a common cliché, but New Zealand really is a beautiful
country. The plantlife is a mix of subtropical species and flora not
unlike northern woodlands (including –imported– pines!), although
contrary to the "Clean and Green" tourist slogan most of the country is
pasture. Owing to its maritime climate the weather can change in an
instant; temperatures could drop to ~10°C at night (and in winter as low
as 2°), but on a clear day with direct sun it would spike to 25°.
Against all odds I managed to get some sleep on the flight so I wasn't totally dead when I arrived. Jet lag didn't turn out to be as bad as my last overseas venture; actually, I think I slept better during the trip than I have for the past year or two. I was through customs by ~6:30 A.M. and milled about the airport for 30-45 minutes until my friend arrived and I finally met the fiancée; shy but very sweet, she's technically half-Maori although you'd never guess from looking at her. We spent most of the day touring the (free) landmarks in Auckland, specifically the botanic gardens and One Tree Hill. We then hit the road for about a two-hour drive to Whangarei (pronounced faung-a-rey), the northernmost officially-designated city in the country. I would stay most of the visit with his parents and younger brother, who had bought a plot of land about a year ago and built their own farm. We got in around 6 P.M. by which time it was already dark; we had dinner, I swapped what news I could remember from back home, and the loving couple headed off while I went to bed.
The next day with fresh light I got a proper tour of the farm with his brother and child sister. They had moved to NuZee about four years ago, then shuffled between four different properties previous before settling on their current plot. They built the main house themselves although it's currently unfinished, due to the fact that the municipal council is, as e350tb would say, complete bogans, and plays red tape with approving the blueprints so it can skim more money. I stayed in the 'bathhouse' (yet to host a bath), which is more or less complete architecturally and ironically better-insulated than the main house. The (step)father is a programmer and the mother is a writer, and while they all do work as needed most of the farming is done by the kids. The farm itself comprises two cows, one dairy and one stroppy steak that'll probably be cut up by year's end, a gaggle of geese, a bunch of chickens, two dogs, a cat, and various crops, mainly kumara (a Kiwi sweet potato) and white strawberries. Given that this family had next-to-no farming experience when they crossed the pond, I was quite impressed with what they'd put together.
After morning chores the brother took me down to sight-see Whangarei proper. Our first stop was the harbourfront; my friend actually works in an office located at the town basin, but he had to make up for lost time earlier that week and couldn't join us for lunch. We did a quick tour of the city library, its adjoining park and the conservatory, then drove out to tour Whangarei Falls. That evening my friend took me out to meet the future missus' mother. You know how in those sitcoms the daughter's the shy introvert and the mom's the armour-piercing eccentric? We had a lot of fun. Particularly, she and I making fun of my poor friend. We returned to her place a number of times for dinner (and for me to have a proper shower) and I was soon assured that he was marrying into the right family.
The whole family took a trip out to Te Whara Scenic Reserve (read: beach) the following day. The road goes by Clean & Green New Zealand's sole oil refinery, which ships everything it processes overseas so the country still imports all its crude. Standing at the beach I finally felt that I was in the Pacific, and my friend and I took a suitable photo to goad those back home. He worked all the following week so the family sought to entertain me during the days; adventures included a drive to Waipu to the award-winning museum of NuZee's first Scots settlement, and a road trip to Cape Reinga, the very tip of the island where the Tasman Sea meets the ocean and the Maori believe the spirits depart for the afterlife.
One of the most unexpected attractions was the Packard Museum in Maungatapere, hosting the world's largest private collection of Packards at 52 cars. The man was an antique collector, and in addition to Packards he had assorted cars, motorcycles, old army trucks, turn-of-the-century vacuum cleaners, a warehouse literally filled with tractors... one could easily make five or six museums out of everything this man had acquired. The managers are still trying to catalogue everything—a year ago it was only open to advance group bookings—and a few months back the curators stumbled upon a hitherto-unknown gun room (that is not yet part of the tour and of which we couldn't take pictures).
On Friday my friend, his brother and I began a multi-day excursion into the south as the last big trip before the wedding. We spent most of the day on the road to Rotorua, a city in the heart of hot springs country (you could smell it five miles away). We got in around 7 or 8 and I learned that Kiwis have no night life; we wandered around town browsing for restaurants only to find that most of them were either closed or closing, and the few that were still open were a bit more than we were willing to pay—dining in New Zealand has two tiers: fast-food cheap (and by cheap I mean European prices) and suit-and-tie restaurants where if you're not drinking wine you're in the wrong establishment; there is no 'middle class'. Originally we had planned to see the Wai-O-Tapu hot springs, but browsing through the motel brochures we discovered that there was a park literally right down the road and that would save us an hour's drive doubling back. Te Puia hosts the second-largest geyser in the world, a kiwi house, and the national schools for carving and weaving. It also showcases a Maori cultural performance every hour or so which we saw, although the brother remarked that he felt it was a tad too staged.
We spent a little more time in downtown Rotorua, mainly for my friend to get his hair cut, and then we drove out west to the real goal of the trip: Hobbiton. It was actually by pure chance that the set exists as a tourist attraction: the land was leased from a local farmer and after the Lord of the Rings films were finished they began tearing it all down; but a storm interrupted the work and during that time the locals banded together and negotiated a new 50-year lease. They went back and rebuilt the set with more permanent materials. It really does feel like walking into the Shire, although only two or three of the hobbit holes are built to scale so there is a bit of a size discrepancy. The family had visited before, and they remarked it had expanded considerably since; one of the biggest changes is that the Green Dragon is now a functioning pub, and work was being done on an adjacent plot in preparation for opening it up to group functions. Everyone got a free drink in the end; their are four beverages they brew on-site, one of which you can only get on-site because it can't be bottled. The only disappointment was that the gift shop was overpriced, and didn't have much that wasn't either prohibitively expensive or too trinket-y. As the sun set we hit the road back to Auckland; my friend continued back to Whangarei but his brother and I stayed the night, as we were flying down to Wellington the next morning.
Neither he nor his brother had been to Wellington, so it was an adventure for the both of us. Compared to Auckland, it is a pretty humble city, and I was quite surprised by just how small its airport is. We took a cab to the hostel we'd booked downtown and spent the rest of the day wandering. There was a farmer's market which we perused before strolling along the harbourfront as we made our way downtown, stopping at various points of interest en route. We toured the Parliament Buildings, which despite such lovely architecture and clever earthquake-proofing we couldn't photograph from inside. One of the interesting incidents in NuZee political history was Prime Minister Sidney Holland's abolition of the Senate in 1951, by colluding with party senators that would get in and then vote themselves out of office. My friend describes current Prime Minister John Key as an Abbott wannabe, and the public is highly skeptical of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership as it would give greater legal clout to foreign corporations, and New Zealanders loathe genetically-modified crops; there's a popular story from a couple years back about Monsanto pollen falling into a neighbouring farmer's field and the company suing him for "stealing" their product. While the court ultimately ruled that Monsanto was entitled to defending its intellectual property, it forced Monsanto to pay his legal expenses. The last stop of the day was Te Papa National Museum, which is open for free to the public for everything but special exhibits and that would probably take at least three full days to get through properly; we came back the next day and were maybe midway through the fourth floor before we had to return to the airport for the flight back to Auckland.
The next morning we shuttled back to the airport to meet the brothers' biological father who had flown in from afar; I had seen him once before but had never really met him, but I'm pretty certain they inherited their wry sense of humour from him. The three of us were picked up by the stepfather and driven back to Whangarei where he got a rental car before we drove down to the house where he would be staying. He works as an IT supervisor and he's been all over the world; by sheer chance his boss is from Whangarei and owns a summer house in the town of Pataua, about twenty minutes out; the boss' mother lives there but was visiting relatives that week and so they let him have the house. It was clearly new(er) with an eye toward family gatherings, and tallying up the beds, futon and sprawling chesterfields, one could easily accommodate nearly twelve people; toward the end of the week the brother and I lodged with him. The rest of the week was spent preparing for the wedding. I'm glad I brought the speechwriting books, because my poor friend had next to no clue what the procedure was. The reception was paid for primarily by the couple themselves; it was done in an autumn theme with handmade decorations, the highlight being strewing dead leaves all down the aisle. We spent the better part of Friday preparing the reception hall prior to the rehearsal, then we all went out to dinner.
My friend joined us at Pataua to help make sure we were all co-ordinated the next morning. The wedding itself went off without a hitch: everyone was on time, in spite of himself my friend didn't faint, and there were no sudden cries of objection because the pastor never even asked the question. We left for pictures, walking down to the conservatory I had visited before; some stunts in photographs back at the house led to a running gag where we groomsmen pretended to be Secret Service operatives, and people actually made way as we passed. We returned to the church at about 1:15 and began the reception proper, a fairly simple lunch of soup, cider and sliced bread. We interspersed the speeches throughout the meal, and apparently I did a good job since everyone complimented me afterwards; for my troubles my friend gave me a souvenir shirt, his mother gave me a copy of her previous book, and quite unexpectedly, the mother of the bride gave me a large pendant of pounamu, an indigenous jade stone highly prized by the Maori. The brother made a fairly lengthy speech in the latter half that brought the new wife's brother, a big, burly ex-army man who looks full Maori, to tears.
The reception ran on for longer than anticipated and by the time we moved on to dancing many people had already left, with the rest slowly filtering out, to the point that there were so few left I didn't see how the newlyweds planned to 'sneak out'. Some time after 4 we started cleaning up and they readied to leave, but not before I could fulfil a special request he'd made way back at the start of the trip: he had requested that I rickroll him somewhere during the dance track, and I came up with not one but four selections with the music man (two from the Leningrad Cowboys); so before they took off I treated the hall to the wonder of Raffi.
The families reconvened at the Boss' House on Sunday for the post-wedding celebrations and the opening of the gifts. It was originally intended as a champagne breakfast but the newlyweds arrived late and that particular scheme fell through; the brother, his dad and I nonetheless took our glasses down to the shoreline. The rest of the day was spent unwinding/winding back up as we packed for our return flights. The final excursion the next day was to visit the Whangarei Quarry Gardens before returning to the homestead to meet up with the newlyweds, who drove us back to Auckland, as his father and I were taking the same flight back across the sea (although we got separated at customs later on). We said our goodbyes and implored each other to come visit soon.
11/10, would journey There and Back Again.
The trip in 2400 words: by @Thorvald (El Thorvaldo)
In February 2014, two months after an expatriate friend made his first return trip since migrating to New Zealand, I received the official invitation to his wedding with the complementary offer to serve as both Best Man and Master of Ceremonies. The wedding itself was scheduled for late May, but I was invited early for what was an almost month-long adventure and my first transoceanic voyage in almost a decade. It was, without doubt, the most relaxing vacation I'd ever been on, with an itinerary at once busy enough to keep interest but not so tight it overwhelmed (versus the whirlwind tour of France in 2007). This recap was transcribed from memory in the days immediately following my return.
Originally submitted as a DeviantArt journal June 2014. RIP whatever description I'd written for Buzzly.
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