Matamata, Tauranga, Taupo, Waikaremoana, Wellington, Sydney

It was a bright and sunny afternoon as we drove through the rolling green hills that make up Matamata’s landscape, on our way to one of the most famous fictional towns in cinematic history. As an avid fan of the Lord of the Rings saga, and a geeky teenager at the time Peter Jackson’s trilogy was filmed in New Zealand, I had been looking forward to this particular day ever since we first decided to come down. And so it was that almost exactly eighteen years after first being introduced to the barefooted little Hobbits and their holes, I myself walked into the Shire.

Well, myself, Maria and the 25 photo-crazed, selfie-stick-wielding package tourists that made up our tour group. This is after all the most popular tourist destination of New Zealand, and everyone wants to show that they’ve been. Granted, I was mostly annoyed by them being in the way of my own photo ops. That being said, visiting Hobbiton is a 100% worthwhile activity. The painstakingly restored Hobbit holes, herb gardens, gorgeous flower displays lining tiny picket fences,… it’s beautiful from start to finish. You get to pass through Gandalf’s cutting, stand beneath the imposing oak party tree, and push the famous fence at Bag End (“No entrance, except on party business!”). It all ends with a complimentary Shire beer inside the Green Dragon Inn at the far end of the bridge, before returning home. Some people call the whole thing a franchised commercialization aimed solely at turning a profit, and I’m sure that’s valid. However, for me, being given the opportunity to actually see and touch a piece of fantasy pop culture, and a vivid childhood memory at that… priceless.

Back in the real world, New Zealand offers yet another type of landscape in the form of the vulcanic regions surrounding the massive lake (and former caldera) at Taupo and surrounding cities of Rotorua and Tauranga. It is known for its natural sulphur and alkali thermal pools sourced from subterranean boiling lakes, which are of great therapeutic benefit for all types of ailments, as well as just being supremely calming to chill in. Which is what we did during days of bad weather, and in anticipation of scaling the most famous North Island mountain pass, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

The Tongariro Crossing is essentially a walk along the skirts of an active volcano, with scalding rivers and fumes rising from the earth. Given the recent disaster at White Island, we were a little hesitant at first to go through with it, but the experience was in every sense of the word otherworldly. Early in the morning, it’s a steep climb up the Devil’s Staircase to a misty burnt plateau. Through the clouds and jagged rocks you can start to see the slopes of Mount Ngauruhoe, desolate and covered in grey-brown volcanic rocks. Used as the location for Mount Doom, it lives up to that reputation and then some. That particular morning the windchill was reaching -8C at the Red Crater, the icy winds blowing over the narrow ridge that marked the highest point of the crossing. Ducking and carefully scrambling over loose gravel, on a 2m-wide path with steep drops on either side, you eventually reach the bright-green Emerald Lakes. Spooky and smelly, they are the mysterious proof of the subterranean unrest. The trail continues past the alkali-infused Blue Lake, setting the scene for a mesmerizing lunch spot. After that, it’s slowly downward through warming hills covered in vegetation. The hike measures 19,7km, or 7 hours and is considered the most spectacular single-day hike in the world. With my limited experience, I full-heartedly agree.

We were getting from place to place by rental car, a tiny Mazda 3 with ridiculously low mileage and ridiculously loud acceleration. Driving on New Zealand’s narrowly winding and warping roads is challenging, not only because of often steep inclines and sharp bends, but also because you drive on the left side of the road. Which we had never done before, but nervously embraced and got used to surprisingly quickly (with the odd traffic rule navigational crisis between Maria and I). Accelerating to overtake a truck on a single-lane mountain road with a Mazda 3 feels a lot like trying to reach top speed with a bumper car at a fun fair. You press your foot into the floor as hard as you can, the car reacts after about 5 seconds, you shoot off at a sky-high rpm, and you feel like this vehicle should never be let onto the actual road. We drove over 1500km with our bumper car without bumping it once, from Auckland to Matamata, on to Rotorua and Tongariro, and ultimately to the main hiking event of the trip: a 4-day trek around the misty lake Waikaremoana.

Multiple-day treks mean packing and carrying all necessary food, camping stove with gas, sleeping gear and necessary clothing. No tents because we were sleeping in barebones trekking huts along the trail. A beautiful but intense few days, away from cellular reception and surrounded by lush jungle, on one of New Zealand’s 10 Great Walks. Although this particular one should perhaps be renamed the Wet Walk. It rained pretty much non-stop for 3 out of 4 days, mudding out the trail almost entirely. The day walks of 12km on average were hard because of this, but the prospect of a dry hut heated by firewood in the evenings helped. We celebrated Christmas Eve here in utmost peace, eating freeze-dried lamb with mashed potatoes and warm apple pie by the fire, topped off with a few sips of aged Single Malt. I gave Maria a camping cookbook to spice up our future treks, she gave me green contact lenses to spice up my future looks. Although far away from home and family, I couldn’t have asked for a sweeter 24th. I will however ask for a drier 25th next year, as the rain soaked us yet again from head to toe that day. Arriving to the final hut on the last night, the clouds lifted and we felt the sun streaming over the water and our faces. Almost as if nature was rewarding us for having made it through, we could now relax and enjoy a final evening away from it all, before taking a landing craft back across the lake the next morning.

An epic drive back to Auckland and night bus ride later, we got to my final stop of the journey. Wellington, or the windy city, greeted us in just this way. We spent our last few days together relaxing, walking around, getting cool in the hipster vibe that characterizes much of the nightlife there, and getting geeky taking a tour of Weta Workshops, the company famous for creating the cinematic world of Lord of the Rings. I was returning to Sydney just in time for New Year’s Eve while Maria would continue onward to the South Island.

I was reluctant to have to return, yet excited about the new year ahead. SydNYE did not disappoint, keywords including rooftop pool party, full harbor fireworks views, and happy people all around. And so here we are. The year is 2020, I’m 30 years old and I’ll be living and working in Australia for the next half year! Life could definitely be less exciting.

Happy New Year!

January 4th, 2020

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