Week 7: Islands and Festivals

After a pretty easy first week in New Zealand, the second one was a bit more action packed. We started off with a few biology and history lectures, and on Thursday we went to Maugnakiki, One Tree Hill. This volcano used to be the home base of a Māori tribe and is now a national park. The one tree after which the hill was named was cut down by protesters, and the only thing you find at the top now is a large monument. When you are on the top of the hill, you can see to the west the Tasman Sea and to the east the Pacific Ocean. The fact that you can see all over the width of the island was amazing.
After Maugnakiki we visited a rainforest with some very endangered trees. You had to wash your shoes before entering and after exiting the forest, that’s how afraid they are for the wellbeing of these trees. There were a few vantage points, and it was amazing to see such an astonishing rainforest on about an hour from New Zealand’s biggest city.

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Next on our list was visiting the blowholes at the Waitakeries. Because it was low tide there wasn’t a lot of water coming out of them, but this did allow us to go swimming in the ocean, which still offered some huge waves.

Friday we had another Māori culture class, these classes are great. We got an introduction to their martial art. We learned the taiaha. We learned how to wield a stick and learned the first set of moves. Our instructor also tried to teach us the Māori names for all the moves, but I don’t think anyone still remembers them, I certainly don’t. This class was great and the jokes the instructor kept on making only made it more fun.

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On Saturday some friends invited me to come with them to a large festival, which I did of course. It was the first time I ever went to a festival and I liked it a lot. Lots of people, good music, and we even played around in those huge inflatable balls. The good weather only made it better, even though I came home with a slight sunburn.

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On Monday we started of with another culture class, in which we learned all about Māori games. We played a game called Ki O Rahi. It’s played on a circular field with two teams with entirely different objectives. I still don’t completely get how it works, but I do know that I was quite sore for the next two days, so it’s definitely exhausting.

In the afternoon we went to the Auckland Art Museum. This was mainly modern art, something I don’t really care for, so I didn’t stay for too long.

On Wednesday we went to Rangitoto. This is a small island just off the coast off Auckland. It is one of New Zealand’s youngest islands, it’s only about a thousand years old. It is now a sanctuary for birds. It is almost completely free of pests and basically all the birds that live there are growing in numbers. We had a nice hike to the top of the volcano which offered some beautiful views, crawled through some caves and then we went back to the pier. We arrived when it was high tide so the pier didn’t seem that high, so we decided to jump off of it on our way back. However, when we got back it was low tide and the pier now rose about six-seven meters bove the water. So we decided to climb to a higher spot and spend an hour jumping in to the water from our makeshift ten meter high diving board.

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The view over Auckland from the island. Over a quarter of the people in New Zealand live in the frame of this picture.

Right now I’m packing my suitcase for a big weekend if traveling, so be prepared for next weeks post!

Week 6: Sunsets and Māori

We’re in New Zealand! After an amazing first half of the trip I’m ready to make this second part just as awesome! I am now the furthest away from home as I will be on this trip.
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Amsterdam is about half the world away.

After our arrival we went straight to a pizza dinner next to the pool in our accommodation in Auckland. In this wonderful lodge we are teamed up in groups of three and all share a room with kitchen and bathroom, it feels great to finally be able to cook again. Overall this place is awesome. After a quick and not so well calculated trip to the supermarket, we ended up with a few hundred dollars worth food.

On day two we had our Auckland scavenger hunt. We went into the city with some questions to get to know the place better. We walked through their marina, their most important shopping street and train station and had a brief workout break in a park. They have their own Space Needle here, called the Sky Tower. It’s slightly higher though.

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On Friday we were still getting settled. After another quick trip to the supermarket to get everything we had missed on our first $400 shopping trip, we went to the Auckland museum. This museum offered place to tons of old Māori artifacts and even a Puukenga, their temple. They also had some Maori people in employment who performed a Hakka, their traditional dance, for us museum goers. They also had an exhibition about Air New Zealand, the national airline, which we briefly visited. After leaving the museum we found that on a five minute walk away there were some botanical gardens. In these gardens we saw all kinds of unique New Zealand plants like the silver fern which might soon be visible on their new flag.
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Our destination on Saturday was Piha beach. This is a beautiful black sand beach in a great area. There are waterfalls within walking distance, there is this great rock you can climb, and the waves in the sea are great for surfing. We spent our afternoon their and unfortunately the lifeguards advised us people that had never done it before not to go surfing. I had a nice nap on the beach because the previous night had been kind of rough, while others went and visited the waterfall.

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Piha Beach

New Zealand, and mainly the area were we are, has lots of volcanos. This means there are tons of dormant and active volcano’s within driving range. On Sunday evening we went up to mount Eden, an old volcano. At the top you could only walk on the ridge because their was a huge crater in the center of the mountain. It wasn’t as dramatic as in the Lord of the Rings, with hot lava just flowing around, but it was still very impressive. We watched the sunset over Auckland from here, and it was a phenomenal sight. Watching the sun slowly drop behind the mountains while Auckland was slowly turning red in the sun’s light was an extremely pretty sight.
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Monday was supposed to be our first day of class. Since we are new students at Unitec, this meant that we had to be introduced to the Māori tribe that has their Puukenga on campus. We had a welcome ceremony which was almost completely in their language, complete with songs and all. We also had to sing our own song to them. We had chosen to sing “Strangers Like Me” by Phil Collins. They really liked it and we were happy that we hadn’t completely blown it. We were then taught about all the lore surrounding this one temple and also the stories of how the Māori arrived in New Zealand. It was great to get such an immersive introduction to their culture.
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The Puukenga from the outside

Today’s Tuesday, and as two friends and I have gotten a gym membership I’m quite worn out right now, so I’m heading in for the night. More next week!

Week 5: Reef and Rainforest

This week was the best one yet! We left Melbourne on Monday morning. We arrived in Cairns just three hours later. As we got off the aeroplane, we instantly noticed that we were in a very different climate that we had been in. It felt as if someone threw a hot, wet blanket over us as soon as we felt the outside air. It was wonderful, a week of sweating laid ahead of us.

We slept in the Northern Greenhouse, a backpacker hostel where we were placed in a room with six of us per room. It was a fine place to spend the nights and evenings. They had a pool, and most important, a kitchen where we could cook our own kangaroo burgers and crocodile filets.

The next morning we woke up 6, because we had to be on the boat to the Great Barrier Reef at 7. On the boat travel there we immediately met some other people who were spending a night on the boat with us. When we got to the reef, it was simply stunning. We started off with a snorkel, just to explore for a bit. We saw tons of fish, starfish, coral, and even a turtle on the first swim!
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When we were done snorkeling, we had our first briefing. We signed up for five dives, and we needed to learn how to breathe under water before we were allowed to go back in again. An hour or so later we were ready and we got strapped onto our scuba gear. The first dive took a while to get down to a dept of 8 meters, but when we got there it was even more beautiful than the reef we saw while snorkeling. More and bigger fish, barracudas, eels, turtles, you name it. This was the most beautiful nature I have ever seen.
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We had one more dive during the daytime before dinner. After dinner, two people of our five person group decided to stay an extra night to try and get their open water diving license. They managed to pass all the tests and are now licensed open water divers! After dinner, we all got the chance to sign up for a night dive. 4 of us did, and a few minutes later we headed in. We had heard some rumours of sharks in the area, but we never expected to come face to face with them. Armed with torches we dove into the darkness in search of these predators of the sea. We didn’t have to wait long before we saw the first shark rip a small reef fish to pieces. It was a two meter long great whaler. It wasn’t more than 1,5 meter away from us. It was gorgeous, nature at it’s best.
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Great whaler in the reef, picture from Google, I didn’t take any pictures at night.

After spending the night playing poker with new friends and then watching the stars from a hot tub, we got up at 6:00 the next morning. That was because our first dive of the day was at 6:30. We saw some amazing fish again. More barracudas, tuna-like fish and of course all the beautiful colored reef fish.
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After one more dive and a few more snorkeling trips sadly two friends and I had to leave while the rest of the group stayed on the boat, continuing their diving lessons. We got back to the hostel and after a quick meal we went to bed.

The next day we went to the Atherton Tablelands. Beautiful mountain ranges combined with waterfalls and rainforests. We spent quote some time swimming and sliding of off waterfalls and jumping off docks. We also saw the waterfall where a very popular commercial was recorded, but I hadn’t heard of it yet. Something with a hairflip…
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We met some more people with whom we were supposed to go out that night, but our friends came back from the boat and we got invited to go party with them instead, an offer which we were happy to take. We still ran into some of the other people that night and everything worked out great. We went to a club in another hostel, and we had a great time there.

On our second to last day we went kayaking at Fitzroy Island, a small island located on the Great Barrier Reef. On this tropical island they had a turtle sanctuary where they nursed hurt turtles back to health. We kayaked to Little Fitzroy, a very small island that was located very close to the main island. On this island we had small hike on rock that were extremely hot under the Australian sun, and I think I burned off a layer of cells on the soles of my feet. The view from the island was magnificent.
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Little Fitzroy as seen from Big Fitzroy.

On our last day in Cains we decided we didn’t want to go sit on the beach all day, so we rented a car and drove back to the tablelands. We found some more beautiful scenery, waterfalls and lakes. We ended up climbing through the rainforest to jump back in a lake from a fallen tree, a jump from 7 meters high up. We also took a wrong turn somewhere on a hike and climbed a steep, slippery slope while it started raining in the middle of the rainforest. The way up was difficult while wearing flip flops, but during the way down I spent more time swinging through the air while holding a vine or two than actually walking. This ended with my friends laughing at me when I landed face-first in the mud.
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We were supposed to get on a flight back to Melbourne that night, but as we arrived on the airport we found that we were the only ones there. Our flight had been cancelled and nobody had told us. After contacting our travel agency we got to go back to the hostel for another night and after some more phonecalls in the morning we got on the next flight. Kudos to the friendly backpacker group in Melbourne, who got us out of there fairly quickly.

After spending one more night in Melbourne we flew to New Zealand in the morning, which is where I am right now. I had tons of fun in Australia and hope that the next half of this trip will be just as enjoyable.

Most of the pictures of the reef are from my friend’s Facebook.

Week 4: From oceans to mountains

The Thursday in week three was spent by visiting Bendigo. This is a fairly small town with lots of museums in it. We visited the Chinese museum and saw that a lot of Chinese had come to the country during the gold rush in the 1850s. After the Chinese museum, we visited the war museum with lots of World War artifacts and we also visited the botanical gardens. Overall it was a very pretty town and we learned more about the history of the country in general.

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The botanical gardens

On Saturday a large part of the group decided to go on the Great Ocean Road. This is a tour which was not in the programme, but was arranged through a backpacking agency. We spent the day in a tour bus driving past the twelve apostles, big rocks that have eroded from the mainland and stand as pinnacles in the ocean. We also walked through a rainforest with trees that were once used as prisons for convicts, we saw Koalas and Parrots in the wild and visited enormous beaches with no one on them. This trip was phenomenal and I would highly recommend it to anyone visiting this area.

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The apostles

The next day some friends and I decided to go to the aquarium. They had very large tanks with sharks and rays and all kinds of fish in them. They also had a saltwater crocodile, one that can grow up to six meters (20ft) in length. We also saw some penguins that were trying to hatch their eggs, fish that spent their time jumping around on the land, seahorses that looked just like plants and fish that shot flies right out of the air.

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The crocodile

On Monday we had a biology field trip. First we went to Mount Donna Buang, which isn’t really a mountain but more of a glorified hill. We inspected the area for traces of wildlife and after getting bit by some leeches we decided it was time to hike down the mountain to the next spot. We spent the day visiting various types of (rain)forest and learning stuff about the trees and the wildlife.

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The view from a viewing tower on Mount Donna Buang.

In the afternoon we went to a chocolate factory which had some amazingly tasteful chocolate to offer. Sadly it was also fairly expensive. After dinner and some billiards we went back to the rainforest as it was getting dark. We were going to see gliders, creatures the size of a cat with flaps between their limbs which enables them to float from one treetop to another. We saw plenty of them and even saw a fairly rare specimen fly. We also found a nocturnal frog and saw some very large bats.

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The chocolate factory

Tuesday was Australia Day. This is a day to celebrate the arrival of the first settlers in Sydney Cove in 1788, but for most Australians this public holiday is just a nice excuse to go out and get drunk in public. We spent our time having fun on st Kilda beach and watching tennis on a big screen on federation square in the afternoon.
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On the beach on Australia Day

The rest of the week we watched some more movies and the weekend was mostly spent writing essays and going out in the evenings. I also visited a large BBQ festival in the middle of the city. Right now is our last day in Melbourne. I am packing my suitcase because tonight I am leaving for Cairns, the city right next to the Great Barrier Reef! More about that next week!