Monday, February 12, 2024

Last day in New Zealand

Our last morning in New Zealand (leaving Papamoa) was a little bit disjointed. We checked out of our AirBnb with the intention of going to Current Church, which we read met on the beach near us during the summer. However, in order to make sure we were on time for our flight, we needed to fuel up first. This ended up being a comedy of errors, including more confusion with payment for gas at the pump. Apparently, the credit card “tapping” technology is officially called PayWave, but when we saw signs saying “PayWave Not Accepted,” we didn’t connect the two. We did eventually find a gas station that would accept our cards, but it meant I couldn’t use my discount code from Pak’N’Save. Sad.

Despite being pressed for time at this point, we made our way to the busy beach to try to find the church. Unfortunately, despite expertly squeezing the Rangers into some tight parking spots, it appeared we weren’t clear on where exactly the church was meeting, because we weren’t able to find them. At this point, we decided to give it up and head back towards Auckland and the airport for our flight home. We did, however, make a quick stop for breakfast at the Canary Drive Thru breakfast stand.

We had one more run in with a gas station near the airport when filling up the rental (put a large hold on the credit card and received balance back in NZD), but, from there, we gave Sam the opportunity to check off “left side of the road” driving. Joe and I had made Justin and Sam (respectively) our backup drivers on this rental, since it didn’t cost us anything and in case we got tired late in the week. Sam drove carefully through the 50 KM/H zone where Joe had gotten pulled over previously and delivered us safely to the airport (with only one minor scare).

Almost home

We boarded our flight with plenty of time to spare and prepared for the long haul back home. For some reason (presumably psychological), the flight back to San Francisco seemed shorter than the flight to New Zealand. Our dinner was also better on this flight (likely because it was provided by New Zealand catering). Overnight, Joe and Justin broke the high score on one of the games built into the in-flight entertainment system. We arrived at the San Francisco airport to a sea of red and gold. Given the 49ers were playing the Chiefs in the Super Bowl later that day, their hometown airport was buzzing. They were playing the 49ers anthem at several of the gates, and one of the gate agents was rapping. We also realized the kickoff would be at 3:30 PM on the West Coast, which was a little bit of a shock for our East Coast mindsets.

The flight back to Raleigh was on a Boeing 737 Max 9 (which was recently grounded after the door plug blew out of an Alaska Airlines flight in progress). At that point, it had been announced that that particular plane was missing several bolts it was supposed to have had to hold the plug in place. As we boarded the plane, we told Adam to check and make sure all of the bolts were there. We arrived back in Raleigh without incident, and made one more stop at PDQ before the final breaking of the Fellowship.

New Zealand is definitely one of the top three places (along with Iceland and Alaska) I have been in the world. Not only was it naturally beautiful (almost everywhere you pointed a camera was jaw dropping), but the people (kiwis and non-kiwis alike) were friendly, and the food was delicious. It also felt like a well developed country where adventure was easily accessible but so were modern services and conveniences. Food was somewhat expensive, but the exchange rate between the New Zealand Dollar and the United States Dollar helped. Many of us decided that this was definitely somewhere we would visit again, except, next time, it would be for longer, if we were going to endure that flight.

Sunday, February 11, 2024

Papamoa and Mount Doom

We arrived back at the Auckland airport early in the morning on Saturday (or late Friday night). We picked up our two ford Rangers again (at least one of which I’m almost positive was the same we had the first day) and headed towards the coast for a short stay at the beach. Sam proved to be an excellent navigator. In his efforts to keep me awake on the three hour drive, our conversation ranged from philosophy and religion to politics. Apparently, though, he used up all of his words and had to go on a word strike with Joe and Justin the following week.

We arrived at our AirBnB, and, unfortunately found one of the rooms locked. Given it was almost 2:00 AM, we knew we wouldn’t be able to get it resolved that night, but John volunteered to sleep on the couch. We collapsed into bed for some rest.

The next morning, we awoke to beautiful views of the ocean out of the front of our house. Justin got to enjoy his primary request for the week: that at least one of our AirBnBs be near a “surfing beach.” He and Sam left early in the morning to go find some surfboards, and managed to hunt down an itinerant surfer who rents boards out of the back of his van. Only one problem - Justin only had USD. Undeterred, this entrepreneur asked how much he had. Justin told him and the guy (after complaining, “You’re going to make me do maths this early?”) said, “I’ll take it” and gave him two boards. Looking back on that interaction, Justin said, “I think I gave that guy like a $20 tip.” This surfer was an actual kiwi.

A surfing beach
Most of our group tried their hand at surfing, and then Gabby and I went grocery shopping for lunch and dinner supplies. One amazing thing about New Zealand is the affordability of meat. Given their volcanic soil makes cultivation difficult, New Zealand’s agriculture is focused around grazing, with a population of about 26 million sheep (five per kiwi) and 10 million cows (two per kiwi). Not willing to pass this opportunity up, we decided to have steak and eggs for breakfast! Gabby also found some local peanut butter, but we decided not to purchase it, given Adam’s suspicion of Tanner’s unmixed natural peanut butter earlier in the week.

No volcano to be seen

Gollum's Pool

Saturday afternoon, we drove down to the Tongariro National Park to see the volcano where Mount Doom scenes were filmed for Lord of the Rings. We stopped briefly in a small town called “National Park” to eat our lunch, and a few of our group had an entertaining interaction with the proprietor of a local ski rental shop. Unfortunately, when we arrived at the base of the volcano itself, everything was clouded over, so we never actually saw the volcanic cone. We did, however, hike out to Taranaki Falls, another filming location, which represented “Gollum’s Pool.”

World's Coolest McDonald's

On the way home, we stopped at “The World’s Coolest McDonalds,” which has a DC-8 airplane attached to the restaurant. Gabby made it in right before they closed for the evening, and the rest of us ate our ice cream under the wings. We were home for dinner (spaghetti) around midnight, once again thankful for New Zealand’s long summer nights (in February).

Saturday, February 10, 2024


Friday morning, we prepared for the breaking of the fellowship. Most of us were staying until Sunday, while a few had to return earlier. Tanner’s car rental was off-airport so he had to leave extra early and arrange for a shuttle back. Later in the morning, I got a text, “Hey, we missed you guys so much we decided to stick around.” Knowing their flight should have taken off by then, I assumed it was a joke. Imagine my surprise when we arrived at the airport and there they were, standing on the other side of security waving at us. As it turned out, some of the flights got confused, but they were able to catch the next one to Auckland (and their flight home) with out issue. No harm no foul.

The rest of our group proceeded to Wellington for a long layover before continuing to Auckland. Adam decided to officially promote JetStar to the top of his budget airline list because they gave him the exit row on this flight. We landed in Wellington (“Home of Middle Earth”), saw Gandalf and the eagles hanging in the lobby, and then piled all seven of us (and our luggage) into a single rental car. Yet another example of, “Pack light, travel fast.”

The Eagles!
We stopped at a restaurant called Cafe Pollo for lunch, which was in a quiet residential neighborhood and felt like it was mostly patronized by locals. We each ordered a lunch in keeping with our personalities: Justin a massive sandwich, Gabby a bagel with lots of greens, and, myself, a meat pie with beans.

Our first planned stop in Wellington was Weta Workshop, the special effects shop that has worked on numerous productions, including Lord of the Rings, Narnia, and Avatar. Weta was just around the corner from our lunch stop, in the middle of another neighborhood. Your main hint that this place is… different, would be the statues of three monstrous trolls in front of the unassuming office building.

Bilbo's contract
We watched an introductory video from Richard Taylor and Tania Rodger (the cofounders of Weta) before entering the workshop, and, once it finished, I bumped into Justin while getting in line. He said, “After you!” The tour itself was a lot of fun, but a little light on the actual workings of the workshop and processes themselves, since a lot of what we would see would be under a non-disclosure agreement until a movie is released.

Bilbo's hobbit feet

Chronicles of Narnia props

There were several demonstrations throughout, including one on how face casts are made. There were a couple of artists stationed throughout the tour who would give us an overview of what they were working on. One guy hated video games and went on a bit of rant centered around that. Another was sculpting things out of tin foil, which was really impressive. It seemed like the folks who end up working at Weta are characters unto themselves. I also find it interesting when they are certain people who really seem to enjoy something that I wasn’t necessarily expecting. In this instance, both Adam (architecture, drawing, and model building) and John (fabricating, 3D modeling, and printing) were the ones who seemed to really appreciate this tour. At the end of the day, I managed to make it out of the gift shop spending less than $20, despite considering the $15,000 sword for sale.

Bag End model

Our next stop was downtown Wellington, and, specifically, for Adam, Gabby, and I, the Te Papa National Museum of New Zealand, which was quite extensive and elaborate. The Shiffletts and John went to ride the Wellington cable car and explore the botanical gardens while we were in the museum. This museum was really well done (think, the Smithsonian of New Zealand) and included an exhibit on the “The Scale of our War,” which detailed the New Zealand Army’s engagement alongside the Australians in the battle of Gallipoli during WWII. Weta created eight, two-and-a-half times human size statues for this exhibit, which were quite impressive.

The Scale of Our War
Public diving platform

After the museum closed, we reunited with the rest of the group and went for dinner on the wharf. Along the way we passed a public (semi) high dive where a bunch of young guys had gathered. We could see this diving board from the 2 Stages restaurant, where we had dinner, and watched for a while what seemed to be a male-dominated endeavor, until a lady jumped in as well. We finished the evening by driving up Mount Victoria to get a view of all of Wellington. No drones allowed here either, unfortunately.

Sunset in Wellington

Friday, February 9, 2024

Milford Sound

Our third day in Queenstown, we decided to visit Milford Sound and take a boat cruise (after our dive trip, which would have been the previous day, was cancelled). We booked a cruise with Southern Discoveries, which included a visit to the “Underwater Observatory” - a diving bell thirty feet below the surface, which allows you to see some of the aquatic wildlife and the native “black coral.” A special biome exists in the Sound due to a phenomenon called “deep water emergence,” which is known to occur in only four places worldwide (Alaska, Patagonia, and Scandinavia being the other three).

Getting to Milford Sound from Queenstown requires almost a four hour drive, but we determined this was worth it, given many recommendations that this was a “must see” in New Zealand. We left early in the morning, and, as I was doing my headcount, made it to eight before Adam left to brush his teeth. Sam said, “Seven.” We made our customary gas station stop for Tanner snacks and had our first run in with gas station payment methods. Apparently, some more rural places in New Zealand require a chip and PIN combination for payment, which swipeable or tappable credit cards don’t necessarily have.

As we were driving towards the national park which contains Milford Sound, there were multiple large “No Drone” signs, which our group ensured I was apprized of. Our first stop was at the Mirror Lakes, which had some trout which Justin tried to feed. We made a bathroom stop at Flatbush, where a tour bus driver almost got into it with Tanner for taking up three parking spaces.

Mirror Lakes
After quite a bit of driving, we finally entered Fiordland National Park. The scenery was spectacular anywhere you looked. We made our way through the one way tunnel (which closes every night, apparently) and stopped at a short hike called “The Chasm,” which, unfortunately, was gated off, once we got near the top. However, we did see a couple of native “Kia” birds in the parking lot, who had quite the alarming call.

Milford Sound
We parked near the marina with time to spare and everyone went off in their own directions. John, Sam, Gabby, and I found the Milford Swing and got a couple of pictures before rushing back to the terminal for our cruise. We arrived in time to collect our tickets and stand in line for a few minutes, waiting to board. Our group all went up to the top deck, which was very windy, but offered the best views. We also discovered our tour company offered free coffee and tea, which several availed themselves of (foreshadowing).

Mount Pembroke

The cruise itself was full of sights, sounds, and information. The first fact we learned was that “Milford Sound” is not actually a sound, but a fjord. Sounds are formed by the movement of sediment down a river valley, resulting in a V shaped outlet to the sea. A fjord, on the other hand, is formed by a glacier and has a U shaped valley. We saw beautiful waterfalls pouring over the cliffs surrounding us and learned that they are a result of heavy rainfall and a thin layer of moss on top of a rocky topography. We saw fur seals sunning themselves on the rocks and black seagulls (or “rats with wings” as our guide called them). At the mouth of the sound (or fjord), we looped out towards the ocean briefly, so that we could get a picture of how hidden the entrance is, and the captain also pointed us in the direction of Australia.

Brochure day

Next, we stopped at the Underwater Observatory and Discovery Center. As we prepared to get off the ship, Tanner discovered he had grabbed one of the dirty empty coffee mugs for his coffee, instead of one of the fresh cups. Once inside, our tour guide welcomed us, and informed the group that there were language translation sheets for those who didn’t speak English or, “have trouble understanding my accent.” Our group looked at each other quizzically, because we understood this guy just fine. Turns out, our guide, Gordon (or “Gator”) was from Georgia. Not the country, but the state. Like, near Atlanta, Georgia. Mark it up as yet another non-native kiwi in New Zealand. We chatted with him afterwards, learned he was from Kennesaw, and had been in New Zealand for year or so on a work visa - which is apparently pretty common practice. With only five million native kiwis, New Zealand has a fairly extensive visa program to encourage temporary immigrant workers on which they depend to sustain their economy.

Gordon from Georgia

After spending our time “underwater,” we reboarded a smaller boat to return to the terminal. At this point, one of the tour guides told us that we were experiencing a “brochure day” in Milford Sound. As in, this is the day they take the pictures for the brochure, since it rarely looks this sunny and clear (being in a tropical rain forest with mainly rainy days). I made sure the rest of the group heard this remark. In addition to the scenery, I was also amazed by the flightseeing planes continually taking off and and landing from the very small Milford Sound airport. Flying approaches and departures what looked like mere feet off the canyon walls. I spoke to a couple of pilots in the terminal and one of them assured me, “It’s not as close as it looks.” That may be, but it still looked pretty scary!

Te Anu Dairy
On the way home, we stopped halfway back to Queenstown in a town called Te Anu to get some dinner. Tanner had picked a restaurant called The Fat Duck, but they were too full to take our large group when we arrived. The next spot, The Ranch, was the same story, so we decided we would all be on our own for dinner. The group started to split up, and Sam, Gabby, and I settled on the Te Anu Dairy. These “dairies” are sprinkled throughout New Zealand and usually serve some type of food, in addition to, principally, ice cream. This was a classic example of the genre and had three menu choices: fish and chips, burgers, and Chinese food. Sam said he knew this was going to be a great place because, 1. they only served three things, 2. three local teenagers came in with towels and flip flops soon after we arrived, and 3. they handed our food to us in a package the size of a football wrapped in brown paper. Sam was right, I think this might have been the best (and most authentic) restaurant experience we had all week!

A local establishment
While we were eating, I got to watch a NASA livestream of the launch of the PACE satellite, which the project I work on supports. We then wandered back to find the others, watched some kids wresting in the local skatepark, and eventually settled into some beanbags to watch the sun set. The rest of the group apparently ended up at a Mexican restaurant that wouldn’t bring Tanner ketchup no matter how many times he asked and mistook Adam for a girl.

We got home around 11:00 PM, and, with our last few hours in Queenstown, tried to rally the troops to go look for the native glowworms in a gully on the mountain behind our AirBnB. The whole group set out initially, but as the wayfinding became difficult, the ladies decided going to bed was perhaps a better use of their time. The guys keep going, first downhill (via some mountain bike trails), then back up, towards the point on Google Maps that said “Glowworms (Closed).” We eventually reached a “Trail Closed” sign, but, not to be deterred, Joe and Justin pulled us around. We made our way up the gulley to a waterfall where the trail petered out. We all turned off our lights, and, after a minute or so for our eyes to adjust, sure enough, there they were. The amebas with bioluminescent poop. Seeing a larger grouping on top of the waterfall, the next step was obvious. After climbing to the top, we quickly moved from “see the glowworms” to “touch the glowworms.” Tanner, Justin, and Sam scrambled across the creek. I turned on my light just in time to see Sam lose his balance near the edge, cartwheel his arms like a cartoon character to regain his balance, and fall forward (instead of backwards) into the stream. I had a friend that used to say, “I hope someone almost dies, because those are the best stories.” As we sat there, well past midnight, looking at the glowworms, Adam said, “Yep, you won’t get this on a tour bus.”

Thursday, February 8, 2024

Routeburn Track

On our third full day in New Zealand we intentionally planned a late morning start. In my somewhat limited experience, mutinies are most likely to occur when a group is not well fed or well rested. We had, to this point, covered “well fed” adequately, but nights had been somewhat short, and it seemed advisable for everyone to have some good sleep.

Morning exercises
Today’s main objective was hiking the Routeburn Track, one of New Zealand’s ten “Great Walks.” These are generally multi-day treks through some of New Zealand’s most beautiful scenery. On a recommendation from some friends, we chose the Routeburn Track, which started at the north end of the lake Queenstown sits on and ends near Milford Sound. This (20ish) mile trek is usually undertaken over three days, with huts along the way for overnighting. Don’t let the moniker fool you. These “huts” are actually fully built out bunkhouses with beds, running water, and kitchens, a far cry from the “shelters” we’re used to along the Appalachian Trail. Not having the time to hike the whole thing, we decided to start on what we were told is the more scenic Queenstown end and hike towards Milford Sound.


Routeburn River

To get to the trailhead, we drove all the way up the north side of Lake Wakatipu, crossing the Dart River which was used as the location for Isengard in The Two Towers. We arrived at the bottom of the track and encountered quite a few hikers outfitted for the whole trek. After gearing up, we set out. This was one of the most varied and beautiful hikes I have ever been on - lush forests, waterfalls, gorges, rapids, swinging bridges, and a wide open river delta surrounded by mountains! We hiked five miles or so before halting at the Routeburn Flats, in a dramatic valley. There was a sign at the trailhead that said, “Authorized Drones Only,” but, after looking around carefully, I didn’t see anyone to authorize me. After resting here for a while and reveling in the magnificence, we turned around and headed back, taking a detour on the adjacent nature trail to make sure we didn’t miss anything.

Routeburn Flats
We headed back to the AirBnB, stopping at a roadside souvenir shop that was, unfortunately, closed. Six of us then decided to squeeze in a round of disc golf at the Queenstown Gardens, which sits on a peninsula jutting out into the lake. The recreation center where we could rent discs was closed, so Justin loaned me his “favorite” disc and told me not to throw in the water (coincidentally he had never thrown this disc before). I told him I’m a professional and don’t throw discs in the water. He took out his phone and started making a note (captioning his next Instagram post, no doubt).

It would have been really sweet to beat Justin with his own disc, but, unfortunately, after a double bogey on my part, Justin won the round by two strokes. Trying to be gracious, I said something to the effect of, “It’s okay, I can lose,” and Justin retorted, “Oh, I know you can!”

Sunset in Queenstown
We finished the day with (another) late dinner, and ice cream!

Wednesday, February 7, 2024


Our group woke up the next morning, on the whole, I think, feeling well rested, after our first night of real sleep in several days. We were headed back to the airport this morning for our flight to Queenstown on the South Island. We stopped at a gas station on the way where Tanner narrowly avoided putting petrol in one of our diesel trucks.

We were nearing the airport when we passed a police car on the side of the road, which quickly pulled in behind us and turned on his lights. Joe said, “Crap, was that me?” Sam said, “I don’t know who else it could be.” We pulled into a turnoff and the officer pulled in right behind us, followed closely by our own dedicated film crew, with cameras already rolling to capture this interaction. Justin was practically hanging out of the rear window to get the shot.

The officer came to Joe’s window and said, “You were going pretty fast there. I clocked you going 77 in a 50.” (That is in KM/H, but still.) “Any reason for that?” Joe said, “No, sir. We were just on our way to the airport.” He said, “Oh, where are you headed?” Joe said, “Queenstown” (pronouncing it “Queens-ton”) and the officer corrected him, asking, “How long have you been here?” Joe said, “Less than a day.” The officer asked, “Any alcohol today?” and Joe replied, “No, sir.” The officer held up a device near his face and said, “Count to five.” Joe said, “What?” The officer repeated, and Joe eventually registered that this was a breathalyzer. After checking his ID, the officer said, “I’m not going to give you a ticket today, but, if I did, it would be about 350 NZD. You’re going way too fast and you’re a visitor here. It’s not a good look.” Joe thanked him, apologized, and we drove off. The first thing Joe said to us was, “I thought I was just following the flow of traffic.” Sam, from the back, said, “Joe, you haven’t been passed by a single person since we got here.” Later, Joe reflected, “That officer was nice. Kind of like the one in Wyoming.”

When we arrived at the airport, it took quite a bit of walking to get from the rental car drop off to the domestic terminal for our flight to the South Island. Security on this side of the airport, though, was great. Definitely more chill than what we had experienced before. Tanner did have some trouble obtaining his half caffeinated coffee (they gave him a puzzled look and asked if he wanted it on the top or the bottom). The flight was beautiful, flying down the western coast of New Zealand, seeing the beaches, the southern alps, and even a volcano.

Queenstown approach
The approach into Queenstown, down a narrow valley, was insane. I looked out my window to the left and saw sheer mountain faces and then looked out the opposite window and saw the same. There was nowhere to go if we encountered any trouble. The good folks from Jetstar, however, put us on the ground as a matter of daily habit. Adam said they might move up on the list of budget airlines I’ve made him fly. Before we got off the plane, there were warnings that no pictures were allowed on the tarmac, and we quickly saw why the warning was necessary. Beautiful mountain peaks rose right behind the airport. This felt like real New Zealand.

Our first stop was for lunch at the famous Fergburger. This spot came highly recommended, but when we saw the line stretched down the block, I started getting questioning looks from our hungry group. I encouraged them to stick it out, and, much to my relief, the line moved very quickly. They had this system down to a science, and, less than fifteen minutes of waiting, and we had our massive burgers in hand. We walked down to the beach on the nearby Lake Wakatipu and ate our burgers while looking out over the water and the mountains.

Lake Wakatipu
After lunch, we walked the Queenstown Gardens loop, on a peninsula jutting out into the lake. We also encountered a New Zealand “Treaty of Waitangi” celebration, somewhat analogous to our Independence Day, but much lower key. We listened to the music for a little while, and then went to check into our AirBnB. This house was up on the side of a steep slope with a beautiful view of the lake and the Remarkables mountain chain beyond. This was definitely one of the “wow” moments of the trip.

Lake Alta
Joe made it!
Still with plenty of daylight remaining (thanks to summertime in New Zealand near the equator), we decided to drive up to the Remarkables ski field on the opposite side of the lake. When we reached the base of the resort, it became a “choose your own adventure” hike to get to the top of the highest mountain ridge we could.  Most of our group hiked up by the ski lifts towards Lake Alta which was used as the setting for the Dimrill Dale in Fellowship of the Ring. This was the first true test of Joe’s rehabilitating ankle, and we knew his PT, Jordan, would be proud, seeing him scrambling over the rocks. Tanner and Justin took more of a direct route to the Single Cone peak and got some incredible pictures.

After this hike, we stopped to grab dinner supplies at the local Pak’N’Save, where we passed two barefoot customers leaving the store. No shirt or shoes required in this locality, apparently. We were disappointed to find they were out of eggs, and we quickly learned how to navigate packaging and labelling the produce. We returned to our AirBnB and had dinner around 11:00 PM (the first of several late evenings).

At this point in the trip, we discussed how we hadn’t met many people who were actually native New Zealanders (or kiwis, as they’re called) and Tanner was convinced they didn’t exist. We had, however, met several folks from England and Australia, among other places.

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Auckland and Hobbiton

We landed in Auckland early Monday morning, having time warped from California, where we had departed on Saturday. Our first order of business was clearing New Zealand customs. Joe and Justin picked the longest line, while the rest of us went through the line with a sniffer dog. This dog took a particular interest in the left front pocket of my jeans. The handler asked if I had food in my pocket, and, when I told her no, shook her head, said something about a false alarm, and carried on, much to the disappointment of the rest of our group behind me. Maybe he smelled some remnant of the deer jerky.

Percival Gull at AKL
We waited quite a while to pick up our rental cars, which made getting to our first stop (a tour of the Hobbiton movie set) a little tighter than planned. We ended up being assigned two almost identical Ford Rangers, one in grey and the other in white, which seemed fitting for a bunch of Americans negotiating the New Zealand terrain. Those of us in Joe’s car left the rental lot with a white Ford Ranger close behind us and headed to the Ground Floor restaurant for our first meat pies. We lost Tanner behind us at some point, and Adam texted to ask if we decided to go straight to Hobbiton. When we told them no, confused, they kept following the grey Ford Ranger in front of them. Eventually, the truck in front of them pulled over and they pulled up next to it. Tanner said he was shocked when he looked over and saw an Asian man in the passenger seat where I was supposed to be. They were following the wrong grey Ford Ranger! Meanwhile, Justin was waving and filming. Thus, our first international stalking incident within the first hour of being in country.

Getting to Hobbiton on time for our tour was going to be difficult at this point, but Joe was determined to make up some ground. At some point, though, Tanner passed us, and Joe followed him like Smoky and the Bandit. He said, “Hey, as long as he’s in front, he’ll get pulled over first.” Despite this being only the second trip on which Joe and Tanner had driven on the left, it came back to them quickly. Well, some aspects quicker than others. I’m not sure Joe ever got the windshield wipers and the turn signal sorted out, but he did enjoy watching Tanner cheat his truck too far to the left shoulder on the back country roads. We arrived at Hobbitton with a few minutes to spare and joined our tour with Anna, who was from Australia. We rode the bus from the visitor’s center out through the sheep pastures to the set. The experience of stepping onto the set for the first time is beautifully engineered so that you enter through the famous stone lane with all of Hobbiton laid out before you.

Party field and the Green Dragon

Bag End

No Admittance
The set dressing around the village and at each Hobbit hole was very intricate. We visited Bag End and the Party Field, and then got to explore one of two fully built out Hobbit hole interiors. For the movie, holes were built to three different scales, based on their intended purpose. It was hilarious waiting Adam (wizard height) ducking through the round hallways, even in this “human sized” Hobbit hole. Finally, we walked around the lake to the Green Dragon Inn. As part of the tour, we had about twenty minutes to hang out in the Inn after the tour. Other tours serve second breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but those were all sold out by the time our group was well constituted. Our time in the Inn may have been one of my favorite moments, as I could imagine our group sitting there talking on any given evening if we lived in the surrounding village.

We drove back towards Auckland and stopped for dinner at a restaurant called The Good Home in Takanini on the outskirts. The waitress (who we eventually learned was from England) asked for our drink orders and Adam said, “Water” with an extra “r” inserted in the middle, which is custom in our culture. She looked confused and again asked us what we wanted to drink. This exchange happened three times before she wandered off, looking a bit flustered. She came back after a few minutes and said, “I’m sorry, your accents are really strong.” Tanner said, “To be fair, yours is too.” She asked, “Where are you from?” Malarie answered, “The United States.” Tanner said, “Yeah, she knows that already.” We laughed and eventually worked through the language barrier. All of the dishes were generous portions and I had some delicious pot roast that was styled as “Texas brisket."

Justin and Joe were having a small disagreement over whether the Steelers or the Ravens are more popular internationally, so Joe was delighted to spot a guy wearing a Ray Lewis jersey in the restaurant. He pretended to go talk to him on his way to the bathroom, and brought back news that a lot of New Zealanders are Ravens fans. Justin didn’t buy it. As we were scheduling this trip, it appeared the Ravens had a shot at going to the Super Bowl (which would be the Sunday we returned), so Joe’s request was that we be home in time to watch the game. As it turned out, they didn’t make it, and Adam couldn’t pass up the opportunity to point out that there was no need to rush back, now. 

After dinner we checked into our somewhat odd, but nice, AirBnB in a suburban neighborhood around 11:00 PM. Justin, the youngest in our group, and our token “kid with energy” then asked, “So, what are we doing tonight?” After a good bit of discussion, we convinced Tanner (mainly via a bribe of ice cream) to be our driver. We ventured into the city, stopped for ice cream at one of the few shops that was still open at that hour, and climbed the Mount Eden volcano in the middle of the city. We flew my drone, took some pictures, and then headed home. When we returned, we realized we were locked out of the house. We were just getting ready to boost Justin up through Joe’s open window when Tanner found a screen door unlocked. I think Justin was disappointed.

Auckland at night

Monday, February 5, 2024

From Raleigh to New Zealand via San Francisco!

Visiting New Zealand has been on my bucket list for quite some time, and I remember telling Joe that if he could find cheap flights to either New Zealand or Australia, we would go. Lo and behold, perhaps attributable to some post COVID-19 travel slump, relatively affordable flights started popping up (and on “real” airlines too), and we decided this was the year.

The travel to get to this particular country from the East Coast is brutal. A total of 26 hours of air travel on the way there, but less than two on the way back (due to the way time zones and the international date line are arranged). Knowing this, we decided to make the trip as long as our time off would allow, to make up for the full day of travel on either end of the trip.

Our group consisted, fittingly, of nine people. Given this would be our quest to the home of Middle Earth, I had a perfect built-in prompt for keeping track of this group. First, we had our wizard, Adam (Gandalf), the tall one. Then, two from the race of men, Tanner (Aragorn), Malarie (Boromir), a steady dwarf, John (Gimli), and one elf, Gabby (Legolas). Finally, the four hobbits - Joe (Merry), Justin (Pippin), Sam (Sam, of course), and myself (Frodo) completed the Fellowship. Gabby said this last particular assignment was very “main character energy” of me.

Our first flight left from Raleigh on Saturday morning. We picked up Gandalf and Gimli on the way and met Merry, Pippin, and Sam for lunch at PDQ. The security screening at RDU resulted in a few good laughs, as Joe’s extra large hitbox on the X-ray machine earned him an extra screening. Justin made sure all of our encounters along the way, including this one, were captured “for the ‘gram.” Joe’s, specifically.

Stretching at RDU
We boarded our flight to San Francisco and rode along with a couple of unhappy children. One couple was sitting directly in front of us with a baby. When we landed, the couple stood up, and the husband told me he appreciated my Northstar “Be the Church” sweatshirt. He said, “With those in-ears, I assumed you’re either a musician or a producer.” I told him I’m an audio engineer at my church and he told me he had just auditioned to play electric guitar for their church in San Jose’s (Echo Church) worship team. He also does audio production for his job, and he and his wife were investigating a move to Raleigh.

We arrived without incident in San Francisco and finally united our whole Fellowship at an airport restaurant. We grabbed some dinner, prepared for long flight, and finished up the last of our fresh deer jerky (thanks Jenna!) so that we wouldn’t end up carrying it through customs. Just before we boarded, we received word that our scuba diving trip we had scheduled for Milford Sound had been cancelled due to weather (more on this later).

The party row

Airborne livestream
The thirteen hour flight to Auckland was the longest single flight I’ve ever been on. It was a large plane, and Joe, Justin, Gabby, and I had the party row in the middle. Sam, meanwhile, wanted to sit as far away from us as possible, apparently. There was a small disturbance with an elderly couple that arrived late, but once everyone got settled down, we were off. Packing that many people into a metal tube for thirteen hours is an interesting social experiment, with total depravity on clear display. I generally make it a policy not to do any serious business in airplane bathrooms, but this long of a flight necessitated it. Unfortunately, just as I sat down I heard, “Flight attendants take your seats!” We had three meals while in flight: a chicken/pasta dinner (which was rubbery and not great), a sandwich, and breakfast (which was delicious). I also dipped into the Northstar livestream early on Sunday morning, while we were somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, through the magic of satellite internet.