Finally, I was on my way to the other side of the planet. Overpacked for a month of travel to New Zealand and Australia, but too excited to care. I had been planning this trip for years, saving my skymiles, and researching what could be the “trip of a life time.” First stop, Aotearoa, or New Zealand as the European settlers called it. But as I would find out, many just abbreviated the name into “N-Zed” for short.
The adventure began before I reached my destination. My flight from LA to Auckland included a stopover in Hawaii – the one state I desperately wanted to travel to since I was a child. Alas, my time there would be too brief – less than 2 hours, so not enough time to experience more than a few deep inhalations of the humid, tropical air that floats in and out of the Honolulu airport’s thoughtfully designed breeze ways.
No matter how brief, it imparted a sense that I was indeed heading towards a magical land. A place where hundreds, maybe thousands, of years ago, an adventurous people had risked life and limb by getting into small dugout canoes and heading for uncharted lands. These hardy Polynesians had explored the South Pacific long before Dutch seafarer Abel Tasman or British explorer Captain James Cook – the white European men commonly attributed with the “discovery” of New Zealand.
When I took off from Hawaii, I had the good fortune of finding myself sitting next to one of the descendants of these adventurous people. My travel companion for the 9 ½ hour flight was a Hawaiian gentleman heading to Auckland to visit relatives. Here was a modern-day example of the broad reach of the Polynesian diaspora. While he was born and lived in Hawaii, his family had emigrated from New Zealand a generation ago. Now, he was returning to visit family and attend the annual Polynesian festival, Pasifika, this year held in Auckland. The festival is a celebration of all things Polynesian – from food to music and dance – and it attracted families from Samoa to Hawaii.
Once I had landed and gingerly extricated myself from my cramped seat, I navigated through the modern Auckland airport and out into the night air to wait for my airport shuttle. I had optioned a room close by for convenience, nothing more. And certainly the Airport Kiwi Hotel provided only the minimal of accommodation. It was inexpensive and without frills, but there was a bed and a shower – all that I needed for the moment.
The next day, I took the shuttle back to the airport to meet my travel companion. She arrived on a separate flight from Los Angeles. With only two weeks off from her job, our itinerary was aimed at packing in as much as we could within the time frame. Not ideal, but I knew that I would be back again one day if I could.
Our plan was to rent a car and drive south to Wellington, stopping along the way, and then take the ferry across to the South Island where again we would drive south to Queenstown. In Queenstown, we would start our trip within the trip: a five-day hike on the Milford Track, considered by many as one of the prettiest walks in the world.
After two nights in the lively and fast-growing Auckland, we headed south in our rental car to Rotorua, a town known both for it’s geothermal hot springs as well as large Maori population. But first, we were headed to the Waitomo Caves to see the famous glowworms (Arachnocampa luminosa) unique to New Zealand. These tiny bioluminescent creatures radiate an unmistakable luminescent light and can be found in dark forests and caves throughout NZ, but are in a higher concentration at Waitomo.
Waitomo and Rotorua get about as touristy as you can get in quiet New Zealand. We cued up for our tickets and after a short wait were met by our tour guide, a direct descendant of the Maori Chief Tane Tinorau, who had discovered the caves in 1887 and started this tourist attraction.
Inside the caves, we were led to a boat that took us on a short ride in complete darkness and silence. Rounding the corner of the subterranean river our eyes adjusted to see thousands, perhaps millions of strands, glowing a soft blue color, and swaying slightly, like fairy lights. It was magical, but brief.
From Waitomo, we headed east through dense forests on our way to Rotorua, passing lumber trucks loaded down with pine destined for paper factories in China. This spa town of about 56,000 sits on the edge of a lake by the same name, meaning second or crater lake.
This town was originally a Maori settlement and still is one of the largest Maori communities in the region. Many live on or near the the geothermal hot springs, Whakarewarewa, meaning “gathering place.”
It has seen better times for sure. Once a tourist destination known for their hot springs, it seems to have grown too rapidly with little planning. Shabby motels and closed store fronts are what greet the traveller now. But the lake front area still sports trendy-ish restaurants hawking grilled lamb on hot stones.
We have decided to stay at a motel touted as an authentic Japanese onsen – however, we later discover that the owner is from Taiwan. Still, it is nice and the on-site hot spring is hard to beat for the price. We drop our bags, and head to the spring for a dip in excruciatingly hot, sulphured water. It is so hot in fact, that we can barely stay in for more than 5 minutes. But it does work the sore muscles and set us into a mood for some wine and grilled lamb.
The following morning, we pack up and head for the Maori village,Whakarewarewa, for a tour for a taste of Maori culture and to see the geysers that dot the village. Here we learn that the name for the village is in fact, Te Whakarewarewatanga O Te Ope Taua A Wahiao, but was shortened for obvious reasons.
At first, the blatant tourism is a turn off, but once the tour starts and we learn that everyone who works for the outfit is not only Maori, but all members of the original families that lived here. The tour is interesting and the performance of dance and song sweet and fun. Without coming here, it would have been difficult to meet and interact with the Maori people. For this reason, I am thankful that they have opened their village up to us.
It is here that we finally understand Aotearoa, not just New Zealand, or N-Zed. To fully appreciate New Zealand, one has to understand the relationship between the Polynesians and the Europeans. While contemporary NZ attempts to honor the Polynesian culture, it has not always been an easy relationship. You can still feel the tension, but by meeting people of both communities, you begin to recognize how the past informs the present. One can only hope that the future will produce even more trust and harmony between these different cultures that have claimed New Zealand as their home. A lesson we can all stand to learn.