Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Kiwi Quests 2010 - Old MacDonald's Kiwi farm

Photos: 1) The auther unknowingly about to get splattered by the Pohutu geyser erupting in the background 2) Maori warrior coming out to challenge us during the cultural performance 3) It's very important to respect Papatuanuku 4) Our sheep herding demonstration in action 5) Carbon dating a ewe who is about to be sheared 6) The ostrich who tried to swallow my finger 7) Kiwi fruit growing in the organic orchard.

I can't believe this is my last full day in New Zealand. Where have the last three amazing weeks gone?

It's 0520 and my alarm is ringing to tell me that yep, my throat is still killing me. Must. push. on! I didn't come all the way to the (near) bottom of the world to be sidelined by some exotic germs. Liz kindly offers me a selection of painkillers for breakfast (the aspirin marked "Jakarta 1998" gets chosen out of sheer curiosity) and Uncle Ross even donates his own supply of medicine now that he's feeling much better. I buy myself a tea and some throat lozenges at the bus station and am soon greeted by a very friendly bus driver named Colin who looks eerily like Mr. Bean's twin brother. Colin is much chattier than Mr. Bean is portrayed so I shall tell them apart by their different accents. He's quite pleased to have a Canadian on board for the day, and updates me on the Olympic hockey games I've missed thus far.

Today's journey will take me south of Auckland, but not to the South Island. A nice warm blueberry muffin treat later and we've arrived at our first uber-tourist stop: Waitomo Glow Worm Caves. Normally, I wouldn't be seeking any kind of close-up experience with worms, but these ones are reputed to be super cool so I'll give it a shot. The Waitomo glowworm, Arachnocampa luminosa, is unique to New Zealand. After descending deep into limestone caves, you'll have the opportunity to see thousands of these little worms giving off their luminescent light. You can also see their sticky threads dangling from their perch in the ceiling. These threads are how they catch insects and bugs which fly down into the caves from outside. As you glide silently (unless the people next to you feel compelled to ignore the rules and talk about shopping for some reason) along the stream in the dark, look up overhead to take in the glittering beauty of hundreds of thousands of glow worms. They look like stars twinkling in the sky, but far closer at hand. It's a bit disorienting in a good way - I could swear that they were far away yet close enough to touch, at the same time. It's just incredible and really something that needs to be seen in person.

A quick detour to the gift shop for more postcards, then we're back on the bus with Mr. Kiwi Bean, heading to the Agrodome. There's a reason they call this place, "The Unique NZ Farming Experience". We start with a tractor ride to see the farm - animals and produce alike. They have a lot of different animals here - alpacas, llamas, the ubiquitous sheep, various cattle, pigs, red deer, dogs, emus, ostriches, etc. It's kind of like touring Old MacDonald's farm - if he had a Kiwi accent. I like this place because we get to hop off the "train" (being towed behind the tractor) and get close enough to the animals to touch them. We're warned, however, not to touch the cows because "Big Mac" (his real name, and he's HUGE) is ornery. The pigs are also off limits to hands because the father in the pen has a bad reputation for biting anything and anyone, and the ostriches don't get much patting because they peck. A lot. It's great fun to interact with all the other species, and I have a bunch of them eating out of my hand, literally. By now, I've had an ostrich attempt to swallow my finger, been pecked hard on my palm by an Australian emu, had an alpaca make threatening-to-spit noises at me, and watched a sheep suddenly kick another. At one point as we were back on the "train" and about to leave a paddock, I suddenly felt a warm body attempting to stuff itself between my legs as a stowaway. Looking down, it's a big, brown sheep, and I quickly take a photo before kicking it off the "train". Nice try, little buddy. I too wish you could come home with me.

Our next stop on the "train" tour is the organic orchard where they grow kiwi fruit (Kiwis are New Zealanders whereas kiwi are the national bird), olives and feijoa, a type of fruit that I have yet to try. Much to my surprise, I discover that kiwi fruit grow on vines, up and over in a canopy under which I can duck to get a respite from the merciless sun beating down on my fair Northern Hemisphere skin. Soon we're sampling some kiwi fruit wine (my ignorant palate doesn't wince so it's good) and some kiwi fruit drink with aloe vera in it. I don't like that one as much, but it's probably better for me than too much wine. I wonder if it doubles as a sunburn remedy?

Now it's time for another sheep herding demonstration. I haven't seen one since the South Island so I'm looking forward to it. Our demo dog today does a great job of staring those sheep through their paces, outlining to us what skills are required to compete at Sheepdog trials. Our dog is herding 3 sheep because that's the ratio in the trials. The handler fellow uses a series of different whistle blasts and shouted commands to direct the dog while the sheep repeatedly attempt to go AWOL. The dog successfully herds them through a variety of obstacles and finally into a pen where the handler shuts the gate. At the Agrodome, the working dogs (ours is used primarily for tourist demos because he's semi-retired, but would still happily run all day if given the chance) aren't rewarded with food so our dog takes off across the paddock and hops into a big tub of water for a quick bath. This is his reward for an excellent demo job, and it's his favourite thing in the whole world. The sheep blandly resume grazing when they are let out of the pen.

Mr. Kiwi Bean is herding us back on the bus following an exciting shearing demonstration because it's time to head to Te Whakarewarewatanga O Te Ope Taua A Wahiao (abbreviated to "Whaka" by locals), a geothermic area near Rotorua. This was the site of the Maori fortress Te Puia which was first occupied in 1325, and Maori have lived here ever since. First on the agenda is a marvellous Maori cultural performance, truly a very interesting peek at Maori history and not to be missed. It begins with the powhiri (welcoming ceremony). Our audience of many elects a "chief" who is given a quick coaching by our Maori guide. Good thing he has the Coles notes because here comes a very fierce Maori warrior to challenge our group! If our chief does not accept his offering, then we're declaring war. Um, I'd rather not go to war while on vacation, thanks. Our chief elect decides to accept to indicate that we come in peace. Now we're allowed into the wharenui ("far-en-ooh-eee" meeting house) to listen to more drumming and singing, and to get further explanation about Maori, their culture, history and way of life. I seriously recommend this if you have an opportunity.

Following the cultural performance, we put our shoes and hats back on, and troop off to find our next Maori guide who will take us round to see the geysers in action. As we walk around the grounds, she gives us all kinds of information on the history of the area and how the geysers work. We also get a stern warning not to attempt to cross the fences into the mud pools. The mud is between 80-100 degrees C, and you won't last long if you decide you need a beauty treatment. No one will come to your rescue either! The Prince of Whales geyser is erupting as we near it which means the Pohutu geyser is getting restless nearby. These geysers are really cool to see and I don't even notice the smell of rotten eggs after a while. I do recommend keeping your camera under your shirt or some other dry place because when the wind shifts, the steaming sulphurous water being thrown up to 30m in the air will splatter you. If you're like me, you won't care about smelling bad or being damp; you'll just think it's entirely too cool! I half expected this area to look like the moon, all grey and bleak and desolate, considering that it's full of geysers, alkaline pools, and scalding mud, but I'm pleased to see how much greenery abounds between the active areas.

Off now to the kiwi (bird) house where, for the first time in my life, I will finally see a live kiwi!! This is truly a thrill because these nocturnal, shy, flightless birds are very difficult to spot in the wild. My early bedtime also works against me. The kiwi house at Whakarewarewa protects a male/female couple, and we have to be very quiet inside the dim building so as not to disturb them. Luckily for us, the female is out of bed and running around hunting insects. NEAT!! She's a bit hard to spot because the light is very low and her brown feathers camouflage well, but I manage to see her a few times, even with all the other tourists pressing into my personal space. The Maori have a special relation with the kiwi: they believe that the kiwi are under the protection of Tane Mahuta, god of the forest, so they no longer hunt the birds because they consider themselves their guardians. The kiwi feathers are still used in ceremonial cloaks, but the feathers are gathered from kiwi who die naturally or under other circumstances.

Yawn! I can't believe we're already headed back to Auckland. That means I'm leaving tomorrow! A very sad thought indeed although sleeping in one place for more than 3 days at a time is of interest to me. Mr. Kiwi Bean kindly calls his friend to find out the score from the men's Olympic hockey final, and both of the Canadians on the bus let out a hearty roar of approval when word of the gold medal reaches us. I'm glad to see Uncle Ross at the bus station to cheerily greet me at this late hour, and Liz cooks a fantastic dinner for my tired self. Eventually, I stagger down to my room to pack a few last minute things, and set my alarm for "horribly early" again. I'm really going to miss it here.......

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