Sunday, August 30, 2015

Adventures Down Under: Getting There is Half The Fun-NOT!

There's a reason I'm heading off on this trip with my son Rob and not my husband Craig. Nothing would induce Craig to fold his body into the postage stamps that pass for airline seats these days for a trip halfway around the world... well, nothing that didn't involve tranquilizers and gratuitous violence.  So this is our long-awaited mother and son trip.  James and I went to Japan, Rob and I are visiting Australia.  We're flying on New Zealand Air, so we decided to turn our 2 hour layover in Auckland into a 2 day visit. Why not break up the flight and knock off another country while we're at it?
We paid $1000 extra for a "Skycouch" which basically meant the 2 of us have 3 seats that have kind of an extension to make a bed- a very short, narrow bed.  How short? Well, I had to curl in a fetal posture and still had people walking past whacking my feet. If that's what happens to 5 foot nothing me, goodness knows where they found the models that recline so invitingly in the ad. Must be 70 pound midgets.  
What I expected


We warmed up on our evening hop to San Franciso, then boarded the 13 hour real flight to NZ at 9:30 pm Wednesday, landing at 5:30 am Friday after a (mostly) sleepless night and 2 bland airline meals.  I rate NZ Air below both Singapore Air (the best I've ever flown) and Iceland Air (just plain fun, and GREAT First Class accommodations) but still better than any domestic airlines, if only for their much less crabby staff.  From Security to Stewardesses, the Kiwis are unfailingly polite.  I am (of course) chosen for a random screening as I go through customs on arrival, but their apologetic style makes me feel badly for inconveniencing them by my uncanny ability to upset the passport picture matcher rather than be annoyed by the delay.  
They say that travellers to New Zealand will not be bothered by jet lag since the time difference approaches 24 hours. "They" lie.  We step outside into a dark New Zealand morning.  I am tired but excited.  Rob, however, is wilting.  He has a sore throat and a fever.  Uh oh.  I know what that means. Once again, it is our lot to aid the population crisis by disseminating a killer virus amongst the locals.  You can thank us later.  
The first taxi driver in line is a chatty New Zealander named Monte.  He learns that Rob will be driving in Australia and takes pains to explain the nuances of navigating roundabouts from the left lane.  He bridles a bit when he hears that we are only staying in his fair land for 2 days.  New Zealand, he tells us sternly, has more beautiful countryside, friendlier people, and less crime than Australia and we are certainly making the wrong vacation choice.  Rob answers "Yes, but does New Zealand have kangaroos?" Forced to confess his kangaroolessness, Monte returns to the finer points of driving.  The Sky City Hotel where we are staying is much farther from the airport than I had been led to believe and, as the meter rises, I begin to worry.  I only exchanged $100 US for $130 in NZ dollars.  We arrive at the hotel just shy of the $90 mark so I give Monte $100, leaving me with only $30. Clearly, we're going to need more money for the return trip. (After a few $30 hamburgers, I just decide New Zealand is expensive but, hey, they have kiwi birds and penguins on their brightly colored money and that's just cool.) 

Monte gives us his number to call for a return trip and even offers to give us a free city tour the next day after our trip to Hobbiton.  We step into the Sky City Hotel at 6:30 am. Check in is 2 pm. Rob is starting to shiver and refuses to talk because his throat is so sore.  This ought to be fun.   
We walk until we find a coffee shop that serves milk shakes. When we order, the waiter asks, "Milk shake or thick shake?"  Confused, I answer, "milk shake." He brings chocolate milk.  Ah ha. Later that day we order a thick shake and get a milk shake.  We also discover that catsup is tomato (pronounced to-mah-to) paste. It's kind of fun to be the ones with the accents. Heads turn when we speak and people are anxious to help.  We go back and hang around the hotel lobby until they decide Rob's zombie appearance is detracting from the decor.  Ironically, the billboard just outside the lobby reads, "Fear the Walking Dead."  Oh, I do.  

We finally get checked in to our hotel.  I had hoped to go to the local track which is having a harness racing meet tonight but one look at Virus Boy tells me that isn't happening. We find a marvelous channel that shows racing, including the local meet and I enjoy watching flat and harness racing, pretending that I'm really there having a bit of a flutter instead of in a generic hotel room.  It's 8 pm but my body insists that it is after Midnight, so I finally fall asleep half a world away.  
At 3 am, my body says to get up and feed the chickens.  I check Facebook instead.  I wake Rob at 6 and he insists manfully that he is ready to explore.  Yesterday in our search for throat-soothing milk shakes, we found a store and purchased orange juice and lots of bottled water.  Thus fortified we troop down to the lobby to join our Bush and Beach tour to the Hobbiton Movie Set. There are 11 of us in the Mercedes van bearing the most excellent moniker "Thrain." (Though I'm told the other van is christened "Smaug," which would have been even cooler.) 

The scenery on the two hour drive to Hobbiton is delightful.  Everyone has that one landscape that speaks to them.  For some it is beach or forest or desert.  Me, I'm an Entwife, and these rolling green hills fit my mental fantasy perfectly.  The green green grass is dotted by trees- some deciduous, some palm trees, all offering shade to the creatures that graze their verdant slopes. Flocks of Romney sheep intermingle with Jersey and Holstein cows.  Occasional horse herds and beef cattle appear betimes.  It is Spring and most ewes have a pair of lambs nuzzling at their udders.  The occasional farm house looks well tended but comfortably distanced from any neighboring farms.  None of those horrid gated communities with houses 5 feet apart in this fair land.  Pastures are fenced with unpainted rails, a land tamed but not devoured; bridled but never broken.  

Genius Cow.  (Just Keep Reading...)

The town of Hobbiton, as built for the Lord of the Rings movies, was dismantled to leave the land as it was on this working sheep farm.  It became a tourist attraction anyway so, when the Hobbit movies were being filmed, the family that owned the land specified that a permanent set was to be built.  Now the largest tourist attraction in New Zealand, the set is beautifully maintained and a feast for the eyes, if a bit penurious to the pocketbook.  We were fortunate to be on the first tour of the morning and our little group had the place to ourselves, though we could see the hordes of tourists crowding through half an hour behind.  Everyone told us how lucky we were that it wasn't raining and, indeed, the drizzle began shortly after we reached the hotel.

We spent the drive back learning about the number one product of New Zealand (powdered milk for babies  called "Cowala")  It turns out there's a reason that the Holstein (Fresian) herds are dotted with Jerseys and the occasional Guernsey.  Holsteins, of course, produce the bulk of the milk while Jerseys are there for the milk fat. Guernseys, it turns out, are the border collies of the cow world. (Who knew?) The brainy Guernseys lead their dimmer Holstein cousins on their daily 10 mile walk from pasture to milking parlor and back, creating the fittest milk cows on the planet. (I think I got more of the animal lecture because the driver knew I was a vet.) Anyway, we came back to the room and supported New Zealand's second largest industry by having lamb for dinner.  Tomorrow, Australia!!

Aside: My co-workers at The Pet Doctor thought I needed a little piece of work to carry with me.  Sandy made me a little  stuffed sperm to journey with.  Dubbed "Spencer," my little friend has been featuring in photos, leading Rob to exclaim, "Get your sperm off my pizza!" He then reflected, "Those are 6 words no dude should ever have to say."