New Zealand aftermath

We’ve been home from vacation a little over a week now. I’ve just now finished uploading my journal of the trip. I tried to keep it as current as possible. I’m sure it has numerous spelling and gramatical errors. Maybe at some point in the future I will go back and edit it.
I took several hundred pictures while we were on the road. It’s going to take me a few more days at the minimum before I’ll be able to upload them.
Overall, the trip was wonderful. There we moments that were stressful and having a touch of the flu in the middle of it didn’t help. All that aside, it was an experience that will be with me til the end of my days. As a person it has expanded my horizons and taught me a great many things about people that I had once taken for granted. As a writer it has fueled my imagination moreso than I would have thought possible. It’s no wonder that the Lord of the Rings trilogy has been so successful. Peter Jackson already had a land so much like the middle-earth described by Tolkien that he had very little to do in the way of scenery to bring that world alive. I’m still digesting all of these new experiences. The only thing I can really say now is that I am glad we went.

Day 17, Wellington NZ -> Aurora, IL USA — December 18, 2003

What started out smoothly morphed into a fiasco. Our return trip was planned out and, if executed smoothly, would have put us home and in our fuzzy slippers by the evening news. Unfortunately things went amiss.

We all checked out and got our luggage loaded into the taxi by ten. The first leg of our return trip was a short one-hour flight from Wellington to Auckland. We got to the airport with plenty of time to spare. Unfortunately this is where our fellowship began to break up. April, being one of our native members, had a short flight to her home in Hamilton. Her flight left shortly after we settled in at the airport. Then went we boarded the plane we left behind Jenny, a Wellington native. It was sad to see them go.
Things got rocky once we reached Auckland. We were congregating at the baggage claim when one of our group came up and told us that our flight was delayed. Thus began one painfully long headache. Apparently there was some kind of mechanical issue delaying the flight. Isn�t that reassuring? It turns out it was some kind of scheduled maintenance that was conflicting with the flight schedule but had priority. Our flight, which was originally supposed to leave Auckland at nine in the evening ended up boarding at two in the morning, with a scheduled lift-off of three, and an actual take-off at four. This put us seven hours behind schedule. We had planned for a four hour layover in Los Angeles, so we missed our connecting flight too.
The airline tried to be accommodating. They gave us food vouchers. Unfortunately we had about ten minutes to eat at the only restaurant we could find � McDonalds � before they started closing up. From there we found a few long benches and spread out. Most everyone ended up lying down and napping but I couldn�t settle down enough to relax. I was anxious to get going. The time finally came to board and we were very happy to see that there was still a duty-free shop open. We ran in and picked up a few bottles of wine. We�re not big wine fans, but we wanted to pick up some for gifts and whatnot. Two whites, a red, and a yummy bottle of ice wine.
I don�t remember much of the flight to Los Angeles. I passed out as soon as I got buckled in my seat. I suffered periodic moments of consciousness, but thankfully they were short-lived.
When we eventually landed in LA, it was an unexpectedly short trip through customs and back to the Air New Zealand counter. They had rescheduled our flight on United for us and even checked our baggage for us, so we didn�t have to carry it across several terminals. We got checked in at the United terminal and staggered towards our gate.
Our flight to Chicago landed at five in the morning, seven hours past schedule. The handful of hours of sleep we�d gotten since watching Return of the King was not enough, and I had to go into work at ten to do a conference call. I blame that tiredness for what we discovered next. As we were picking up our luggage, we noticed a bag identical to the one we bought in Wellington go around the carousel a few times, but the name tag on it wasn�t ours. We finally checked the baggage claim number. Oops. It turns out I had picked up the wrong bag in LA and checked it in to Chicago as our own. United did a good job handling it. We turned in the bag and explained what had happened. The person who picked up my bag called and we had a laugh about the mix-up. It turns out he bought the exact same bag while in New Zealand, so he could carry home all of the extra stuff he bought, too. We also both put on the temporary tags provided by the airline, so at a glance the two bags looked identical. He picked up his bag that afternoon and United delivered ours the following afternoon.
After getting things settled with the airline we caught a taxi home. We had a great time on our vacation, but it was good to be home.

Day 16, – Wellington NZ — December 17, 2003

The longest day begins. We took the ferry from Nelson to Wellington today. I’ve never been on such a large boat before. The seas were a bit violent but you could barely feel it. I spent most of the transit time reading and “resting my eyes”. I knew it was going to be a long day, but I had no idea just how long.
We arrived in Wellington and caught a taxi back to the Richmond where weÂ’d stayed during our previous stay here. I canÂ’t say IÂ’d recommend the place. There was a particular mildew smell that made sleep a challenge, not to mention that our bathroom didnÂ’t have a door. That made having visitors over quite difficult.
We had to finish some last-minute shopping and email so we went downtown and walked our sore little feet off. We went to Te Papa, a large museum on the waterfront. We contributed greatly to their gift shop. Not only did they have some cool stuff, they had a dedicated shop just to Lord of the Rings stuff. Then we had to stop at a store and pickup another bag to carry all of our loot home with us.
We headed back to the room and tried to get a little sleep. It was still afternoon but we had our tickets to the Return of the King premier at midnight at the Embassy Theatre. I think we managed a few hours rest before we met up with Annie and walked downtown for dinner. Our last full day in New Zealand and we found the best little restaurant tucked away in a corner. It was a nice, relaxing meal before the big event.
Appetites satiated, we crossed the street and went into the upstairs lobby of the Embassy and waited for our group. As soon as it was time we found our seats and watched the last part of this epic trilogy. There were a lot of emotions wrapped up here at the end of our trip, finally seeing the last leg of the movie that had partially inspired our journey. I think I can best call it a bittersweet moment. We were enjoying the time and company but thereÂ’s an undeniable feeling of home that we were sorely missing.
After the movie we spilled into the streets and did our best to avoid the television reporters there to capture the event. I failed. I managed to avoid talking but I was rather prominently caught behind someone being interviewed, looking somewhat like a deer in headlights I imagine. Once the camera was off I was able to escape to the safety of a dark corner as we waited for a cab. About four in the morning we stumbled into bed and got what little sleep we could before the ten oÂ’clock checkout that morning.

Day 15 – Nelson NZ – December 16, 2003

Most of the group went on a helicopter ride today, leaving Dena and I to do some shopping. We picked up some souvenirs and scratched our heads at how the economy here is different. For goods produced here, the price seems to be fairly comparable to back home. For imported goods, however, there can be a wide difference which I can’t completely wrap my mind around. Products that have to be imported from the US, for example, would, should, and do cost more. There are more costs involved in getting those products to market. When the product is being imported from Asia, however, I would expect lower prices, not more, since there is a considerably shorter distance to transport them. “Personal entertainment”, such as books, Cds and DVDs were the most shocking. They seem to, on average, cost at least twice as much here. I couldn’t imagine paying more than I would pay at home for a nice hardcover book for a paperback here.

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Day 14 – Nelson NZ – December 15, 2003

As we were waking up at the Blue Seas Motel this morning we first heard the news about the capture of Saddam Hussein. It was interesting to see the locals take on the news. It managed a front-page blurb in one of the newspapers, but just barely. It was a short, single column on the bottom of the page.

We made our way up to the port city of Nelson, our final stop on the south island. Another long drive on twisted, narrow mountain roads. We enjoyed the scenery of the ocean along the way. I even spotted two seals sunbathing.

Once we checked in to our rooms in Nelson, we took a walk to the city centre and took a look around. Some of us went off to check email while others, including myself, just looked for a place to eat. Nelson seems to have less of a touristy feel to it than other cities here. Maybe I’m spoiled by how open everything was in Queenstown, but it seemed like most shops in Nelson shut down around five in the evening.

We ended up at an Italian bar/grill place named after some kind of scooter. Afterwards we headed back to the motel, played with the resident cat (some strange mix of Siamese and something that sounded like cougar) and watched Pirates of the Caribbean on the Powerbook. Excitement abound.

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Day 13 – Kaikoura NZ – December 14, 2003

The original plan was that half of the group would leave at the crack of dawn to go on a hot air balloon. I wasn’t up for floating through the air with naught but a weaved basket below my feet, but I was going to ride along anyway, to assist the logistics of balancing between two cars. Luckily those plans were washed out (literally) in a steady rain and gusty wind.

With those plans canceled, we started our drive towards Kaikoura. Our final destination wouldn’t be our only one this day. Around lunchtime we stopped in Christchurch, which is a much larger city than I had expected. I may be wrong, but it looked much bigger than Queenstown or any other south island city we’d seen to date. We stopped at a theatre (the name escapes me now) and watched the Two Towers: Extended Edition. With that we have now seen the extended editions of the first two films on the big screen.

Afterwards we continued our drive to Kaikoura, though not as uneventful as we’d have hoped. Somewhere along the way, perhaps halfway to our destination, the lead car in our party braked hard and pulled to the side of the road. It seems a goodly sized rock was propelled off of a passing truck and had its way with the passenger side window. It didn’t actually enter the car but it did a good job of trying. That small hole and spiderweb of cracks delayed us for about an hour as calls were made to Budget rent-a-car to find out what to do. Whoever we had on the phone didn’t know what to do either, besides tell us to call back in the morning. We shifted passengers around so no one had to sit in front of the shattered glass and finished our drive.

The scenery along the way was very lovely. We passed several wineries, including one that we ended up buying wine of from the duty-free shop. In the end we were just relieved to get to Kaikoura. The Blue Seas Motel is set across the street from the Pacific Ocean. It was quiet, clean, and spacious, something we couldn’t count on at some of our previous stops. We settled in for a nice evening of order-out pizza, one of which even tasted like something from home, and some TV.

Day 12 – Mt. Potts NZ – December 13, 2003

We left early today and made the longest drive of our trip, some 450km to Mount Potts. Supposedly our lodging for the night was going to be one of the fancier stays of our vacation but I found it lacking. There’s something to say about going on trips with a group and not all of them are good.

We arrived at Mt. Potts Backcountry Lodge in the late afternoon and it became quickly apparent that our expectations had been deceived. Our room, which was supposed to be a double, contained two single beds. The beds themselves were little more than lumpy bits of material that had once been fluffy played on top of a pine board. The door to the room didn’t even lock. We were in the middle of nowhere, but it’s still comforting to have that slight protection against intrusion and/or interruption. There were four units attached, ending with a shared bathroom. Six people sharing one bathroom and a single roll of toilet paper. Not my idea of fancy.

The Lodge that lends itself to the establishment’s name was a bit better. Old but comfortable couches and chairs settled around the open layout and a pool table in the corner. They even had a room for Internet and Email. Unsurprisingly that consisted of an ancient computer and an even more ancient connection. It was enough to check email, but just barely.

The food for our stay was provided – a blessing considering that the nearest store lay some forty minutes away by windy gravel road.

After we settled in, we drove down the road a bit more and saw one of the more apparent filming locations – the horse lord city of Edoras. We hopped the gate of a sheep farm and walked along another gravel road to get a better look at this mound.

Unfortunately there were just too many angry looking cows and streams in our way to get to the top of Edoras. We were also running out of time weather-wise. A fog was moving in, bringing a light rain with it. After the long day of driving, none of us particularly cared to get wet, especially given our sparse accommodations.

Day 11 – Queenstown NZ – December 12, 2003

Our last day in Queenstown and Dena and I had it all to ourselves. We spent the day walking around town, taking in the sights and doing some Christmas shopping. It was good to have a day to ourselves. The victory of the day was when we found the Dart River Safaris office a mile or so from the hotel. I had overheard it mentioned when we were waiting for our boat yesterday. Their Queenstown office carries the full line of Sideshow/Weta products. Sideshow/Weta produces a number of limited edition collectors pieces. The highlight was a statue of Bilbo’s Stone Trolls from the Hobbit. That piece was too rich for our blood. Instead, we picked up a few smaller pieces. For me, the Arms of Gimli – a plaque featuring all of Gimli’s axes, and a small reproduction of his helm. Dena bought the Arms of the Hobbits – another plaque, this one featuring Sting and Samwise Gamgee’s frying pan. We’ve got a wall in the library decorated with fantasy pieces where these will fit just nicely.

Day 10 – Queenstown NZ – December 11, 2003

We set out this morning to visit more location sites. We headed to Glenorchy, a 60km drive through the mountains surrounding Queenstown. Along the way we stopped at Twelve Mile Delta (Ithilien Camp).

After a quick bite of lunch we split into two groups – some going horseback riding while the rest of us went to Dart River Safari and prepared for our jet boat ride. Armed with raincoats and life preservers we went out on the Dart River, seeing some of the backdrops used in the film. Somewhere in the area crews were out filming The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I’m looking forward to that movie as much as any other in recent memory. Also, we learned that the recently released movie, The Last Samurai, was also filmed on the South Island.

The jet boat took us halfway to our destination. We were dropped off on shore along the river, where we had a short twenty-minute hike to a 4wd bus that was waiting to take us through the mountains and back to town. Once in Glenorchy, we piled into the car and drove back to the hotel and crashed for the night.

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Day 9, Queenstown NZ — December 10, 2003

We went four-wheel driving in Skippers Canyon this morning. Riding in a decked-out Land Cruiser we traveled road and path and river for four hours. We passed through HellÂ’s Gate, witnessed the River Anduin and the location used for the Pillars of the Kings. The pillars were digitally added by Weta (pronounced Whey-tah by the locals) after filming.
That afternoon we drove to Te Anau. Doing our part to bolster the New Zealand economy, we bought our tickets to the Te Anau Glowworm Caves. We boarded a cruise boat and took the 35-minute trip across Lake Te Anau. After a short video introduction we followed our guide through the cave entrance, at times bent nearly in half to clear the ceiling, and to the boat. Guide wires were set in the ceiling of the cave, which allowed the guide to navigate the boat through the tour. Once everyone was in the boat the lights were cut – the rest of the trip being made in total darkness.
Glowworms are fascinating creatures that resemble green LEDs glowing in the dark. The hungrier they are the brighter their glow. It was breathtaking to see these tiny creatures in their natural habitat, almost totally undisturbed. One thing I have noticed here is a strong trend towards conservationism.
The water in the part of the cave we were in was very shallow, no more than a foot or two deep. It was very clear, too, much like all of the lakes and streams here. Clear, cold and clean enough to drink. I canÂ’t imagine drinking from any body of water back home, except for the occasional natural spring. It makes me sad to think about things like the Chicago River, that only looks healthy when they dye it green for St. PatrickÂ’sÂ’ Day