Kiwis, Kiwis and Kiwis: The People of New Zealand

Originally posted on POMS AWAY!:

He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!

What is the most important thing in the world? It is people! It is people! It is people!

Maori Proverb

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A koru I found while walking in the bush

One of the most important, fundamental differences between England and New Zealand is one that is often overlooked when juxtaposed with the landscape, wildlife and weather: it is the people.

The people of New Zealand are called kiwis. This can cause a certain amount of confusion among tourists, as there are two other distinct entities in New Zealand that also bear the name kiwi:

1)      The endangered, native bird that is a symbol of New Zealand, the equivalent of Australia’s kangaroo.

2)      The fuzzy, green fruit also known as the Chinese gooseberry, the growing of which is an important industry in New Zealand.

Despite this…

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Haut Cuisine – Literally

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Twice, I’ve had the pleasure of dining at New Zealand’s only revolving restaurant. Appropriately named Orbit, it’s situated near the top of Auckland’s Sky Tower – the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere – and it’s the poshest restaurant I’ve ever been to.

Sky TowerNew Zealand is blessed when it comes to great places to eat, but Orbit is something else. It’s not the food that makes it so special – although the food is amazing; quite literally haute cuisine – it’s the view: awe-inspiring, unique and constantly changing.

That view, of course, is of the whole of Auckland City and the sea beyond. It’s wonderful to see the concrete jungle from above, with its patches of green parks and volcanoes, and the hundreds of yachts arranged like ballet dancers upon the glistening harbour. That’s how I saw it when I went at lunchtime. When I went in the evening, however, I saw 360 degrees of sunset followed by the vast, iridescent cobweb of city lights upon the darkness. The food was just a bonus, really.

When you go Orbit, you’re warned that a high standard of dress is required – that’s how posh it is. Also, the parking at the Sky Tower is super sophisticated. If you can’t remember where you parked, which is embarrassingly easy in that place, there are touchscreen computers next to the lifts that you can put your licence plate number into, and they’ll use the security cameras to find your car for you. Cool, eh? Remember to ask the restaurant staff for a parking discount.

Of course, the food is expensive, but not heart attack-inducingly so (for what it is, at least.) For dinner, there is a minimum spend of $40 per person, (and $30 for lunch,) but that includes admission to the observation decks. They have quite a good dinner deal where you can get a starter, main and desert for $69. (At lunchtime, you can get a starter, main and drink for $49.) So not too bad. Besides, the food is excellent. Just look at the current menu!

RangitotoBoth times I’ve been to Orbit, the starters have been better than the mains. I mean the mains were certainly better than I could have done at home, but the starters were out of this world. Let me put it this way: The standard of restaurants is so high in New Zealand that for me to consider a meal above average, it must give me a food-gasm with every bite. Those starters did just that. I haven’t stopped going on about my venison carpaccio!

I don’t really care about how the food in restaurants is presented, but, of course, the food at Orbit is presented very nicely. The service is friendly and, if anything, too quick – this is a restaurant where you actually want the food to take ages so you can admire the view for longer. Orbit takes one hour to do one full revolution, and the view may include the odd person plummeting past the window.

When I went at lunchtime, I felt like I was in that Monty Python sketch. You know… this one…

The people plummeting down the side of the Sky Tower were attached to cables, though. The SkyJump is a popular (if expensive) activity for thrill-seeking tourists. I want to do it one day.

So… is New Zealand’s only revolving restaurant worth going to? Yes. The food is amongst the best you’ll get in the country and the view is second-to-none. Just one last piece of advice:

Don’t leave your handbag on the floor on the window-side of the table. You’ll look down to find it’s vanished and, after a moment of confusion, realise why and feel really stupid. Also, good luck finding your table again after going to the bathroom!

Don’t want to spend so much money in Auckland? Check out What to Do in Auckland for Free.

Bringing Joffrey Down!

joffrey2Yesterday, I was witness to the downfall of the most hated king in fictional history: Joffrey Baratheon. Yes, the Lord of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros and incurable you-know-what was toppled before my very eyes. And in New Zealand, no less.

I was making my way down Auckland’s Queen Street when I noticed a crowd gathered in Aotea Square. At the centre of it all was a magnificent, golden statue of Joffrey. The sight sickened me, but, being a massive fan of Game of Thrones, I approached with interest.

I’d heard about this happening, but forgotten. (It was a happy coincidence that I was wearing my Daenerys top.) It was a publicity stunt promoting the new series. The statue had a rope around it, and the rope was attached to a large, wooden wheel. How fast the wheel turned was dependent on how many ‘tweets’ on Twitter the event got. I haven’t got a Twitter account and have no desire to get one, but I was tempted to create one just to help bring the bitch king down faster.

When I got there, at about two in the afternoon, the statue was tilting slightly. I didn’t have anything to do for the rest of the afternoon, so I settled in for the long haul. It was quite a boring wait, but I had my Robin Hobb with me, so I read while the statue inched imperceptibly to a lean.

The sun was beating down on the square. The golden crown on the boy king’s smug head was gleaming. Still, the crowd waited. And grew.

I was sitting on the ground right next to the safety barrier. All around me, I heard snatches of conversation: people daring each other to grab a chunk of the statue when it finally fell; people asking exactly when it was going to come down; people who didn’t watch the show asking, “So is he, like, the evil one?”

joffrey3I was just impressed that this was happening in New Zealand, the place where nothing usually happens except the filming of fantasy movies. In fact, I heard someone comment, “Aren’t we supposed to be Lord of the Rings, not Game of Thrones?” I wasn’t complaining. I wished we’d got a ‘washed up’ dragon skull on one of our beaches, like England got, though.

As the sun dropped below the line of buildings that surrounded the square, the swollen crowd was getting a bit restless. Then – who’d have thought? – a seagull landed on Joffrey’s head and stayed there. The crowd went wild. Seriously, we were like peasants starved of entertainment. When the seagull flew off, there was a great “AAAWWWWWW” of disappointment.

At some point, they started giving out posters of different house sigils. Of course, being a Northerner, I wanted a Stark one. Typically, they ran out before I got there. I ended up with a Targaryen one, which, you know, isn’t bad. I also got a Tully one and an Arryn one, but who cares about those, right?

Then, from the loudspeakers set up around the square, came those first ominous notes of The Rains of Castamere. The atmosphere improved instantly. This was what I’d been sitting around the last few hours for. The deeply sung words sent shivers up my spine:

And who are you, the proud lord said,
that I must bow so low?
Only a cat of a different coat,
that’s all the truth I know.
In a coat of gold or a coat of red
a lion still has claws.
And mine are long and sharp, my lord,
as long and sharp as yours.
And so he spoke, and so he spoke,
that lord of Castamere,
but now the rains weep o’er his hall
with no one there to hear.
Yes, now the rains weep o’er his hall
with not a soul to hear.

But the statue didn’t fall. They started playing the titles music, which built to crescendo that had never seemed more dramatic. Everyone stood poised to cheer.

But still the statue didn’t fall.

They played Rains of Castamere again. And the main theme. It got to the point where everyone groaned every time it began again. I mean couldn’t they have played The Bear and the Maiden Fair to pass the time?

Then, finally, Joffrey looked about to fall. They played the main theme AGAIN, hopefully for the last time. It finished. The statue hadn’t fallen. Then, miraculously, it fell.

Well, flopped.

It was a bit of a letdown, really. It didn’t crash to the ground like in the films, shattering dramatically save for an outstretched hand. It just swung down to land headfirst and stayed there, facing the plinth, upside-down but upright.

The top of the head shattered a bit. The crown broke in two, which was nice.

joffrey4People started moving away. I was among them, but then I heard a great cheer go up. Some guy had jumped the barrier and nicked the crown, and was now running away as fast as he could, chased by a fat security person. I’m glad to say the guy made it to freedom, darting into the mass of people walking up Queen Street and disappearing from sight. I wonder what he did with the crown.

The spectacle of Joffrey Baratheon being brought down in Aotea Square marked, I think, an important day for New Zealand. Until now, New Zealand has been notorious for being months behind America and Britain as far as TV shows are concerned. (Don’t even get me started on Coronation Street.) But yesterday, we were firmly in sync with the rest of the world, and it felt good.

As a side note, I found it startling how such a large crowd could be united in hatred against a mere statue, even if it was just in fun. I feel like I fully understand now why statues are pulled down. It was satisfying and disturbingly emotive. I felt as though, had we really been starving peasants outside King’s Landing, we’d have taken up our pitchforks and stormed the Red Keep. You’d think you’d be intelligent enough to resist mob mentality, but it was fun just being involved. Exhilarating.

Down with King Joffrey!

McLaren Falls

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Just outside Tauranga, McLaren Falls Park is a beautiful place. You can feed the ducks and kayak on Lake McLaren, surrounded by stunning trees. You can walk around the lake – so peaceful, and the path’s of a decent length without being strenuous. You can camp there, and it’s got so many wonderful picnic sots – you’re spoilt for choice. Best of all, it’s got the waterfalls.

Last time I went, a few weeks ago, the waterfalls were quite disappointing because it had been a long, dry summer. It was a good chance, though, to see the interesting rock formations that would otherwise have been hidden by water. We scrambled over the rocks and went across the top of the falls. Here, various natural pools just beg you to swim in them. You have to take your togs.

(Oops. ‘Togs’ – that was very Kiwi of me. I meant to say ‘cossie’. And by that, of course, I mean ‘swimming costume’.)

Falls4As you sit with your legs dangling in the water, you look up the wide river and the rocks and trees towering up either side of it, and you just have to appreciate the awesome power of nature. Then you look down. Brave young people jump often jump down the falls, but I’m not one of them. It can be fun watching them from the bridge, though.

Falls2The park has a strangely North American feel to it, although some bits also seem very English to me. It’s because of the trees – New Zealand natives aren’t much in evidence there.

It reminded me of the family picnics when I was a kid, back when we still lived in Britain. The sound of the ducks gossiping and the swans beating their heavy wings, accompanied by the wind in the trees… rippling over the water…

The only bad thing about McLaren Falls is the cornucopia of biting insects. I went well prepared last time. As soon as I stepped out the car I began vigorously applying repellent, but even as I did I was squashing mozzies against my legs. After that I was fine, though. I escaped the park unscathed.

Campervan2Despite the insects, McLaren Falls Park is a fantastic place to camp. Waking up to that scenery is an absolute privilege and it’s only $5 per adult – kids under 16 are free. You don’t need to book and you can stay for up to three nights. You’ve got free barbecues, an animal park next-door and, after dark, you’ve got glowworms. Check it out if you’re ever in the Bay of Plenty with a New Zealand campervan rental.

More from around Tauranga:

Top 10 Things to Do in Tauranga

Shopping in Tauranga

Te Puna Quarry Park

The Tauranga Airshow

Mount Maunganui

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The Mists of Kuirau Park

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The geothermal wonderland of Rotorua is one of the best places to go in New Zealand. Some of its attractions, however, are ridiculously overpriced. Rotorua can be a real drain on the tourist’s pocket, but it doesn’t have to be. If you want to see hot pools, mud pools, a geyser and a steaming lake – basically everything you go to Rotorua for – for free, look no further than Kuirau Park.

My family always goes to Kuirau Park, and we went again just a few weeks ago. It was raining, but that just made the steam more spectacular. Seriously, the lake looked like it was in The Mists of Avalon. I got some awesome pictures. See for yourself:

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And now for the lake:

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And the rainy pic of the day:

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More on Rotorua:

Top 10 Things to Do in Rotorua

New Zealand’s Pompeii

Smells Like Breakfast

New Zealand Information

The Festival, the Campervan and the Cyclone That Wasn’t

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All last week, New Zealand lived in dread of Lusi. The massive tropical cyclone had already killed people in Vanuatu and would hit us at the weekend. The very weekend my family was to attend WOMAD, the World of Music and Dance, a three-day open air festival.

The festival was in Taranaki, a part of the country I’d never been before, a long drive from Auckland. We’d booked three nights in the WOMAD campground, a racecourse-turned-city of tents right in the shadow of Mount Taranaki, and hired a campervan from Wendekreisen. We packed our umbrellas, (even though we feared it would be too windy to use them,) and set off.

WOMAD 002The campervan we’d hired was a six-berth. It had a solar panel on its roof – not that it’d be any use this weekend – and a full-length mirror on the bathroom door. It also had a proper gas oven, not just a hob, and more room than any other campervan I’d been in. The furnishings were a bit worn, but I had no complaints.

I was amazed how many bugs got splattered on our windscreen on the drive down to Taranaki. It took us about seven hours, including a break. It was during the break that I appreciated just how convenient it was to have a campervan. Here we were at the side of the highway, sitting round a table next to a nicely stocked kitchen with a fridge, grilling some ciabatta and boiling water for tea.

By the time we’d got to WOMAD and settled in at the campground, it was dark. I had no idea what to expect at the festival. As we walked towards it, the sound of African drumming heightened my anticipation. Then we entered: I hadn’t expected it to be beautiful, but it was.

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WOMAD takes place in a large park. The trees around the edge were lit up all different colours, and the main stage was on a lake. Next to the main stage, upon the lake’s surface, were some statues of elephants and the illuminated letters of WOMAD. They looked amazing reflected in the water.

Now as you can imagine, WOMAD is a haven for hippies. There were signs everywhere that told you not to smoke, but let’s just say the night-time air was laced with something else. It wasn’t unpleasant – far from it – and if you felt you needed a detox, there was a stall selling shots of wheatgrass juice.

WOMAD 030croppedThe market was great, marquee-after-marquee selling hippie dresses and incense. There were even some people selling handmade leather notebooks with Celtic designs on them. They were wonderful, but too expensive for me.

Then there were the food stalls. All sorts of yummy food from around the world – I wanted to try everything! That first night, I ended up with falafel and goat curry and crepes. (I stayed away from the wheatgrass.)

If I’m honest, I enjoyed the environment more than the music. I liked some performances – this Scottish folk group called Breabach and a laidback Tim Finn, in particular, but I got a bit bored with most of the others. The park the festival was in – now that interested me.

WOMAD 010It had a Chinese garden that looked magical all lit up at night. There was a bar there, and a kitchen stage where various artists from around the world could demonstrate how to cook food from their home countries.

Best of all, if you crossed the lake behind the main stage, you came across a light trail through the forest. All around the edge of the lake and through the trees, different coloured lights were strung up. It was enchanting. That first night, I only did half the walk, but I promised myself I would do it all the next night.

WOMAD 017Back to the campervan we went, and the weather was still perfectly pleasant. It was muggy and cloudy, but that was it. On the way back through the campsite, I passed a tent that had a thick halo of pungent smoke around it…

The wind picked up through the night. It was raining slightly by the time we got up on Saturday morning and we thought, well, it’ll be here by tonight.

It wasn’t. Throughout the day, we barely had need to put our coats on. Far from the mud bath the media had predicted, the grass was fine to sit down on. With evening came almost scorching sunshine. Then sun set and I headed back for the light trail.

This is what I found.

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For me, that waterfall was the highlight of the festival.

The next day, the last day, the weather got a bit wetter and windier, but in the park, which is a sort of natural bowl, you hardly felt it. It was a case of, “Cyclone? What cyclone?” All that panic for nothing.

All in all, WOMAD was a highly enjoyable experience. The atmosphere was excellent, as was the food and the location. I personally didn’t need three days of it, but lovers of live music would be left wanting more. This festival was definitely something New Zealand can be proud of.

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New Zealand’s Pompeii

Lake Tarawera

That breathtaking view is of Lake Tarawera. As I took that photograph, I couldn’t believe how peaceful it was, how much like paradise it looked. In 1886, it was the site of the most terrifying volcanic eruption in New Zealand’s human history.

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Modern tourists admiring a steaming hot pool in Rotorua’s Government Gardens

Back then, Rotorua was just as much a tourist trap as it is today. People came from all over the world to see its geothermal marvels – the mud pools, the geysers, the “healing” waters – all while breathing in the magnificent smell of rotten eggs. Most spectacular of all were the Pink and White Terraces, revered as the Eighth Wonder of the World.

The Pink and White Terraces were naturally formed bathing pools. They were tiered, flowing with warm, silica-rich water. From the paintings, photographs and written descriptions of delighted tourists that remain, we know they were beautiful. They cannot be visited today because they were obliterated in 1886, along with the lives of about a hundred and twenty people, when Mt Tarawera blew its top.

Lake Tarawera

This is what Mt Tarawera looks like today, from across Lake Tarawera – a shadow of its former self. When it erupted, it buried several villages. You can visit one – Te Wairoa – that has been excavated from the ash, like Pompeii.

Nearby the Buried Village, on the shore of Lake Tarawera, lies a very nice café. The food’s surprisingly awesome, and you can sit on the deck and look out over the lake. Last time I went, it had just been raining heavily, so the lake, Mt Tarawera and the surrounding bush were swathed in mist. It was highly atmospheric. I could easily imagine the ghosts of the eruption drifting across the water. As we ate, the mist slowly cleared. Now we saw the lake in its full sparkling glory. We drove up to the lookout spot and stood amazed.

Blue Baths2 copyAfter that, we drove to somewhere we always go when we visit Rotorua: Government Gardens. I’ve written about Government Gardens before, but they’ve got even better since then. You’ll want to take your time exploring them – it’s easy to miss bits, there’s so much. On the gardens’ periphery is the gorgeous 1930s bath house of the Blue Baths. (That’s it in the picture.) My family loves it there. It’s less crowded than the more famous Polynesian Spa, and more sophisticated with its Art Deco décor.

Bringing us back to the Tarawera Eruption, the best thing about Government Gardens is they’re home to the Rotorua Museum, which has a fantastic exhibition on the subject.  I enjoyed it so much, the science, the history and the artefacts – including a pair of Victorian women’s boots I seriously wanted to steal, and a mummified cat.

Rotorua MuseumThe building that the houses the Rotorua Museum is beautiful. It was built to be a luxury bath house, offering mud baths and electroshock therapy, and some of the bathing rooms remain as exhibits. Rather excitingly, one of the exhibits is an underground labyrinth showing you all the pipes under the building. You’re offered a hardhat before you descend, but I’m so short I didn’t need one. I must say I found it rather creepy. In a good way.

You can also go up onto the roof of the building. As well as being a fascination in itself, it offers a 360° view that encompasses the Government Gardens and Lake Rotorua.

Being a history nerd from England, I often bemoan New Zealand’s comparative lack of interesting history. That day in Rotorua, visiting Lake Tarawera and then the museum, I found a new appreciation for New Zealand’s history. Besides, England doesn’t have bubbling mud pools or steaming geysers. Or quite the same danger of having lava rain from ash-darkened skies…