Where we head south to Wellington

Feb 3, 2015

Wellington, NZ, North Island

Last night’s camping was not exactly a success; all that “patchouli” smell (at least, that’s what I called the smell wafting out of other camper vans at dusk because, well, pot ain’t on my discussion list with the kids at this point in time), late night music and overtired kids did not make for great sleeping. So it goes. At least we got a little sweet revenge with Kyra’s bright, chipper and LOUD morning voice bright and early next to those tents full of night owls. But that’s what “free” camping buys you. When we navigated around the clotheslines, kayaks and empty beer bottles, the campsite’s charms really shone: a rope swing into the glorious Waikato river, unbelievably clear and aquamarine, like the Mexican Caribbean, but freshwater. Our midwestern kids marveled at handfuls of water that ran clear, with no algae in it. Cold, clear and fast, a morning swim in the Waikato reset us all for the long drive ahead that day.

We grabbed a cappuccino from a local cafe (coffee everywhere in New Zealand has been, across the board, outstanding) and headed for nearby Huka Falls. If you were to jump into the river at our campsite and let the ferocious current carry you about a kilometre downstream, you would see this voluminous river squeezed into a narrow chasm and become a roiling, boiling series of epic cataracts that look like they eat kayakers for breakfast. and the higher we hiked up the edge of them, the more impressive they became. Truly one of those moments of being humbled by the awesome power of the natural world.

That night we opted to stay at a backpacker hostel in Wellington, mainly so Jake can get a decent shower and be at his orientation bright and early the next morning. I’ve always loved hostels but they are especially ideal with kids. They’re lively, people are social, and the experience of cooking in a communal kitchen and soaking in everyone else’s travel adventures is interesting in a million ways. Kyra got to socialize with new people (I am stating here and now that she has a radar for cool German women) and Milo got to hear about three-month long treks through New Zealand. Plus, bunkbeds! We talked with one woman who had hiked the length of the entire north island for three months and was preparing to embark on her second three months of trekking on the south island. It had taken her a month of hiking to cover the distance between Lake Taupo and Wellington - a distance we covered by van in six hours. I can only imagine all the things she saw up close that we missed as we zoomed past all those beautiful landscapes. And she earned a knowledge about that place that we won’t ever know. Funny update: we picked up this same lovely woman and a companion as they were hitchiking to their next trailhead on the South Island five days later!)

As part of the orientation to New Zealand, Fulbirght fellows and their families were invited to experience a traditional powhiri, a Maori welcome ceremony. We visited a marae - the communal gathering place of Maori for religious or social events - and were treated to a warm welcome and a wonderful history of the place. The concept of marae was introduced by Polynesians and so variations exist in many Polynesian societies including New Zealand, Hawaii, the Cook Islands, Tahiti, and other island nations. But while in many other places the tradition died out, marae are still very active part of everyday life for Maori in New Zealand. We were treated like honored guests, fed extremely well and even got to sleep in the wharanui (meeting house) in a kind of giant 40-person slumber party.  This particular marae has a storied history and a most poetic name which translates to "Goodwill toward all people". The Maori of this iwi (tribe) were renowned for their effective non-violent resistance in the face of historic land grabs by the government, employing the principles of Mahatma Gandhi in fighting the New Zealand government. Today, this marae serves as the vibrant, beating heart of this Maori community, operating preschools and language and cultural activities for youth, and even a beautiful museum.

On our last day in Wellington, we visited Zealandia,  a renowned ecological sanctuary in Wellington. I'll admit, Jake had to sort of prod me on this one. In general, I am not enamored of zoos or reserves, they often feel like sad, neglected places full of diminishing creatures living out a shadow of their wild lives. But, man, this place was incredible, a mash-up of the mundane and marvelous. In New Zealand, conservation is the single-minded art of killing things, mainly the multitude of non-native mammals that have been accidentally or intentionally introduced over the years and that have decimated the native fauna of the island. In an effort to preserve the remnant populations of bird, including the kiwi, New Zealanders have systematically excluded, trapped, exterminated and poisoned these pest animals with some great success. Zealandia is one such place, where an $8M high-tech, maximum security fence was installed around the perimeter of the valley and staff managed to rid the area of all invasive predators (save for mice). As a result, the reserve has become a safe haven for some of the world's rarest bird and reptiles species, right in the heart of a major city.

As a side note, The New Yorker published this terrific 2014 article about New Zealand's quixotic quest to restore its native fauna and it's really a great story about what is possible.

Happily awaiting our morning cappuccino after a rough night of camping

Just another fabulous playground by the sea with a treacherously high climbing structure. 

The wharanui, or meeting house, at the heart of a Maori marae

Preparing for our 40-person slumber party at the marae. "It's exactly the way I want to sleep every night!" says Kyra

A Waka Taua or Maori war canoe. Carved from a single tree trunk, this war canoe seats 20 men and weighs almost one metric ton. One look at the bow carving and I understood immediately why Captain Cook never set foot on his first sighting of New Zealand when a flotilla of these came out to meet him.

Working on their paddling technique

Some of the stunning carvings adorning the fence around the marae 
We were assured that football is indeed a perfectly welcome use of the marae. 

Wellington was a pretty charming city, we stayed way longer than we thought we would.


Milo and a model of a blue whale heart at New Zealand's National Museum Te Rapa in Wellington

And Kyra discovers the delightful lightness of being pumice!

Birds of Zealandia included this robust flock of shags - a native cormorant

Kakas - native parrots at feeders 

This crazy fellow is one of the most endangered birds in the world, the flightless Takahe

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