Nov 14, 2014

Week 6: Wellington, Weta, and Hobbiton

Listen, Chicago, we gotta talk: you call yourself the "Windy City" but I believe Wellington has you trumped for the title. Wearing Oliver and carrying a second backpack, I was still pushed sideways across a busy intersection when the roaring gusts barreled down from the mountains.

Luckily my first night in Windy Wellington was markedly calm and fair; perfect weather for watching the belated Guy Fawkes fireworks show. In the morning there was a sprawling farmer's market where you could buy fresh veggies for cheap and listen to buskers croon mellow hits. Between the sights, food, and public art, I think Wellington really is the "coolest little capital in the world."

If you're wandering around the suburbs of Wellington and happen upon three larger-than-life-size trolls, you've found the Weta Cave -- the Weta Workshop's mini-museum and handmade souvenir shop. Behind glass displays are LOTR movie props such as prosthetic hobbit feet (below), Sting, and various Middle-earth warriors' helmets.

The souvenirs are all crafted in the workshop and are authentic, one of a kind, absolutely unaffordable treasures. If you have a spare $1799 NZD, for example, you can buy your own 10K precious gold (seewhatIdidthere?) replica of the One Ring (below).

Sir Peter Jackson was in Wellington at the same time for a special screening of the third Hobbit movie to superfans, but alas! was not at the Weta Cave when I went. However, during a screening about Weta's origins, I did get to hold Thorin's actual axe from the movie! Talk about cool.

What could top a visit to the Weta Cave? How about a tour of the Hobbiton movie set... pure magic. I'll let the pictures speak for themselves:

A Hobbit Hole

The Shire; The Waterwheel;
Sam and Rosie's hobbit hole, complete with blooming roses.

Bag End; The Green Dragon (a real cider and alehouse);
And a note from Sir Peter Jackson.

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Nov 8, 2014

Week 5: The Southern Alps

The farmstead has turned off the “WWOOF” light.
You are now free to roam about the country.

This week I left the farm in Oamaru and, on a whim (because when you’re traveling, you can decide when you’re exploring, eating, sleeping on a whim), booked a bus ticket to Dunedin:


Dunedin - meaning Southern Edinburgh - is a college town thriving with around 30,000 students; the vibe reminds me a lot of Ann Arbor, Michigan. I arrived just in time for Halloween. Rather than join the huge bloc party in the city center, I took a walking ghost tour. At one point, we descended six stories underground into an old war bunker, and there, in the creepy dank darkness, told each other our own ghost stories. One woman told a true story that had happened to her that left us all in shivers.


The Adventure Capital of the World was tinier than I’d imagined - aside from the boardwalk, the central city is a few blocks wide, yet the hostel was several stories tall and built like a family-style hotel. On the walls were ads for bungee jumping, skydiving, and other adrenaline-pumping activities for the mostly 19 year old clientele (I felt too old to be there). Queenstown was my base for the day trip to Milford Sound:

Milford Sound

I booked the 10-hour return bus trip to Milford Sound before hearing that “there’s nothing to do there except take the 2-hour cruise.” I had the intention of hiking, but was told there were no tracks, just a boat terminal and the road. I wasn’t swayed to buy the $92 cruise, and went on the trip anyway… and I’m so glad I did! I found small footpaths just a few minutes walk from the bay. It was so foggy you couldn’t see the mountains well anyhow, only the tendrils of waterfalls that slid down their sides as if the mountains themselves were oozing water. Also present: several very intelligent kea birds, the world’s sole mountain parrot.

Mt. Cook

As soon as I arrived, I booked an additional night in this stunning valley. A hike up Hookers Pass was rewarded with a crystal clear view of Aoraki/Mt. Cook, which for days prior had been obscured by snowy fog. There were other walks in the area that took you could take from the "village" - a cluster of buildings isolated in the valley below the innumerable snow-topped peaks. You’re humbled by nature real quick, to be surrounded by these mammoth giants who’ve stood here long before we were all born, and will endure long after we’re gone.


After arriving in the South Island’s northern town, I took a hike (you notice this is becoming a trend) up Bob’s Bay to get a view of the stunning smaller islands that make up the Queen Charlotte Sound. Probably best not to do this when you’re sleep-deprived from a short overnight in Christchurch, or haven’t brought along any water or snacks with you (I did survive, thanks for checking).

All in all, a very good week “tramping about,” as they say here. Tomorrow I’ll be taking the InterIsland Ferry to New Zealand’s North Island. Next stop: Wellington!

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Nov 1, 2014

Animal Life in New Zealand

I’d never met an endangered species outside the zoo before, and here in New Zealand I’ve met several. Pictured below are the little blue penguin, the yellow-eyed penguin, a fur seal, and a sea lion:

One evening, my WWOOF farm host drove us to the narrow Otago Peninsula that stretches out into the Pacific Ocean. We took a winding dirt road to the edge of that jut of land, then walked down a steep slope to get a better view of the coastline. The Prof stopped, and looked out at the waves breaking on the rocks.

“How many fur seals do you see?” She started to count, “One, two, three, four…!”

I looked at the same shore, and said, “Zero. Where are the seals? I don’t see anything.”

She pointed down at the rocks. “There’s one right there, and over there," she said.

There was nothing. I told her so.

“Open your eyes! One's yawning and stretching out right below us.”

I looked down and was stunned - so it was! The brown of their fur blended in so well, they all looked like a part of the rocks. Suddenly, I could see.


Going back up the steep hill, we spotted wooden nesting houses with yellow-eyed penguins staring at us, their eggs warm and safe under their bellies. I was dazzled by the beauty of the land, the sea, and the animals that belonged to both environments.

I'll remember the Prof's advice as I continue to travel: open your eyes.

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Oct 22, 2014

WWOOFing in Oamaru

This particular morning I'm in town as the Prof (my WWOOF host) volunteers at the library for a few hours. In just a few days I've fallen into the rhythm of daily farm life. I'm the sole volunteer at Rowan's Retreat this week, and that the Prof runs the place by herself most of the time amazes me - there is so much "that always needs doing," as she says.

There are two breeds of chooks (chickens), two jersey cows, a bull and a ram on loan, two new mother sheep and two very pregnant ones. In front of the henhouses are pots and styrofoam boxes and garden beds of plants in every shape and variety, from tomatoes to roses to aubergines (eggplants). Behind the feed shed and beyond are rows and rows of fruit trees, and potatoes planted in stacked tires to protect them from the rabbits.

And then there's the beautiful, English-inspired home with animal skin rugs, tall windows looking out at the gardens and, beyond them, the Southern Alps; the kitchen is full of Japanese cookware and tea pots, the walls are lined with artwork, and in the sitting room there is a fire stove that we feed every night to heat the water for our showers.

Besides taking care of the animals, vegetables, flowers, and trees, the Prof is an awarded writer who always has a full load of editing, writing lessons for retreat visitors, managing an author's selected publishing group, all not to mention her new novel she's working on to be published by next year.

The icing on the cake? The Prof is a fantastic cook and baker! Honestly, the past week I've had the best food of my entire life. When you pick bok choy straight from the garden, wash it up and steam it for dinner -- ahh! It has so much flavor and crisp freshness. And the hokey-pokey ice cream over hot rhubarb? Oh! it makes me swoon.

Every day I go out and "earn my bread;" I help feed the animals, and work in the garden, and patch up holes the rabbits have left trying to get at the chooks's leafy greens; and every few hours I get to sit down at a big dining table with the Prof and we eat together a scrumptious, fantastic all-organic meal, and she tells me stories from her life and her work, about farming and poetry and Shakespeare, with bits and pieces of what life was like when she lived in Japan herself. And what makes that meal special is the sweat you put into it: your hands sow the seed and reap the harvest, and cook the meal - and it tastes so sweet, so wholesome, because it is (sometimes literally) the fruit of your labor.

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Oct 17, 2014


RTW Destination: New Zealand

Purpose: learn to sheep farm

Visa Information

- visa not required for Americans
- required proof of onward ticket
- 1 blank passport page required
- no required special vaccinations
- departure tax no longer collected

Duration: one month

Projected Daily Budget: $70 USD

- ($0 for days on the farm, $140 for days in the cities)

Bucket List

- WWOOF on a merino sheep farm (WWOOF = willing work on organic farms)
- go on a Lord of the Rings tour
- skydive along the coast so you can see both sea and shore (mayyyyyyybe)
- hike the Milford Track (South Island)
- hike Arthurs Pass National Park (South Island)

Average Weather (November)

- 66º / 46ºF  High / Low
- 4 days average rainfall

Areas of Concern

- some parts of New Zealand have high seismic activity.

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