Monday, May 30, 2011

Rotorua & the Maori

The Maori are New Zealand's indigenous population. Although they have migrated to the South Island like most other ethnic groups, most of the different Maori tribes or iwi live on the North Island. Overall they make up roughly 15% of the total population of New Zealand.

The Maori are Polynesian in origin and gave New Zealand its original name of Aotearoa. They arrived here somewhere around the 12th century AD. Over many centuries of isolation, they developed their own language, alphabet and mythology. The Maori alphabet has the same 5 vowels as English, but only 10 consonants - p, t, k, m, n, ng, wh (pronounced as f), r, h, w.

As with other aboriginal populations around the world, they suffer from lower life expectancy, lower incomes, higher crime rates (50% of prison inmates in NZ) and higher rates of smoking, obesity and alcohol & drug abuse. They seem to lead a more nomadic lifestyle, frequently moving from one place to another.

However, unlike North American Indians who have been marginalized from society on reservations and Australian aboriginals who seem to hold a similar status in Australian society to livestock, the Maori hold a prominent position in New Zealand society. They are quite evidently proud of their heritage and although there is some friction between the Pakewa (European New Zealanders) and the Maori over historical gripes, the two ethnicities live together in relative harmony.

The most well known export of Maori culture is the Haka war dance that the All Blacks, New Zealand's all star national rugby team, perform to intimidate the opposing team before each game. Maori warriors used to do this prior to battles to frighten the enemy.

This blog is about our visit to Rotorua, the cultural capital of the Maori people in the middle of the North Island. We spent 5 days in Rotorua between April 6th and April 10th, 2011.

We drove 5 hours in the evening on April 6th to arrive at the beautiful boutique hotel, the Regent of Rotorua. This hotel looks like it would be more at home in South Beach than in Rotorua. The owner, Darryn, really went out of his way to make sure that our stay was perfect including offering advice about the good and bad in restaurants and attractions in and around Rotorua.

We started our first day in Rotorua with a hearty breakfast at Fat Dog. The kids enjoyed the dog themed everything. We walked off the carbs by browsing the shops along Tutaneaki St before heading off to the Polynesian Spa for Trish's 11:00am appointment. She disappeared into the spa section of the facility for the Stress Buster massage while I escorted the kids to the "family spa" section which featured 3 separate pools warmed by geothermal heat to different temperatures. We wasted 2 and half hours playing colors, Marco Polo and "who can wait in the cold air outside of the pool while Dad floats lazily". The kids and the mentally handicapped adults on the side of the pool laughed hysterically as I blindly bashed my nose against the railing while playing Marco Polo. While I felt the sting of the handicapped people's ridicule, Cassandra encountered a similar impact to her face underwater knocking a triangular chip out of her front tooth.

Cassandra ruins her perfect teeth with a chip to her top incisor
Recognizing that Cassandra would need MAJOR orthodontic work, Trish had already taken Cassandra to an orthodontist before leaving Canada. He only charged us $20 for the opening consultation. He said "professional courtesy" after hearing that I was a doctor. Although appreciative, I think it was his way of saying "Don't take all this work ($$$$) to another orthodontist".

After a pretty quiet lunch at the spa, we spent the rest of the afternoon recklessly careening down Mount Ngongotaha and the Redwood Forest at Skyline luge. With three different tracks covering 4 kilometers, we all had a blast and no one chipped any teeth.

I bought a nice bottle of wine to enjoy at our hotel, but later struck out in our choice of Italian restaurant Nuvolari where we enjoyed a less than ordinary meal. It has proved to be almost impossible to get a decent Italian meal in New Zealand. This place was worse than most that we have tried.

Trish didn't sleep at all that night. She waited until our dentist in Pointe Claire opened in the morning (1:00am in New Zealand) and then e-mailed her the picture above to ask for immediate advice. She felt better when our dentist reassured her that the repair would be relatively simple. [It has since been repaired by a local dentist in less than an hour for $65].

After a fitful night of tossing and turning, we chose to spend most of Friday at Te Puia, an outdoor museum/sanctuary/memorial to the Maori culture. The day started with a demonstration of the many different types of Maori dance, including a stand-in from some of the audience.

We then followed our Maori guide on a tour of the park where she educated us about the Maori culture. The highlights of the tour were the national carving school and the geyser park where there were at least 10 geysers that seemed to be erupting almost continuously.

Maori War Canoe that seats 100 people

Hot, steamy and smells like rotten eggs!

Predictably, the kids only got really excited when it was time for a swim in the hotel pool. Admittedly, this was easy on Trish and I as well as we silently took in the warm late afternoon sun over a glass of Riesling only disturbing our sleep-deprived haze from time to time to repeat the parental mantra "That's enough fighting kids!".

Having learned our lesson with our lousy restaurant choice the previous evening, we followed Darryn's advice and sat down at Seismic Gastrobar for dinner. Great steak and burgers and if we hadn't already been back in our beds at our hotel, it was supposed to be fun at night too.

Well deserved reward after a day of culture
After a full day of culture on Friday, Saturday was about fun. We set out to visit Hobbiton, the actual New Zealand movie set for Frodo & Bilbo's home in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. On the way there, we made a pitstop in Tirau, a cosy town with Christmas shops and antique boutiques ... and a community center shaped like a giant dog.

Tirau's i-Site
Without further ado, we arrived at Alexander Farm to take our tour of Hobbiton. We had to sign a pretty hefty confidentiality agreement before embarking on the tour stating that we wouldn't post any pictures on the net, because the same set will be used for the upcoming Peter Jackson movie, The Hobbit, now filming in New Zealand. So these are the only two pictures that I'm allowed to post, but I have a ton more with video footage as well that I can show you when I get home.

The experience as a whole was pretty cool but being a HUGE fan of the Lord of the Rings in both print and film, I'm certain I'm more than a little biased. The guide, who was pushing 80, was dead on in all his facts about the movie and what angle this shot or that shot was taken. For example, at the beginning of the first movie, the Fellowship of the Ring, when Gandalf comes to Hobbiton to attend Bilbo's 111th birthday and the kids chase his wagon, where did Gandalf let off the fireworks? And where did the scowling hobbit stand?

Entrance into Alexander Farm & Hobbiton
One of the most interesting factoids was that Bag End, Frodo and Bilbo's prized hobbit hole in the hill, was supposed to be in a hill underneath a huge oak tree. Alexander Farm did not have any suitable oak trees, so they bought one from a farmer down the road (for NZD $11 000!) and had some tree expert take 1000s of pictures of where all the branches were located. They cut it into bits and reassembled it on the set and then had students stick 250,000 fake oak leaves on it. All this for 12 seconds of screen time!

Well, at least I liked it. The kids seemed to enjoy it as well, but Trish, who has no interest in anything related to Lord of the Rings, felt it was a bit long and expensive to walk around someone's farm.

A 1 year old lioness who was just starting to perceive kids as "snacks"
The final event of the day was a visit to Paradise Valley Springs Wildlife Park. The big draw was a lion cub that the the kids could pet. It ended up being a half-decent zoo for something 30 minutes outside of the thriving metropolis of Rotorua. The lion cub was not as cuddly as we expected, but still sat still long enough for the kids to stroke it's body through the cage.

Other highlights included interacting with all sorts of local wildlife that the kids could feed or ... smooch ...

Doe, a deer, a female deer ...
Huge trout in the Ngongotaha Stream
... marveling at the gigantic rainbow trout in the Ngongotaha Stream, replenishing our water bottles in the Te Waireka Spring and catching the 8 second event of lions copulating on film.

The selection of restaurants in New Zealand is somewhat limited. If you like lamb and steak, you'll be happy here. If you can't live without Italian, Szechuan or Mexican, stay far away. Sushi is so-so, although there is an excellent Japanese restaurant close to us in Palmerston North. There is however an excellent selection of Thai, Indian and Malaysian cuisine. We successfully introduced our kids to Indian food at a Parnell St. restaurant in Auckland. Now we eat Indian as a family at least once a month.

We took the kids to a Thai restaurant for our last meal in Rotorua. Darryn's suggestion to go to Amazing Thai was a great start for the kids to eat some more sophisticated Asian food. Since then we've brought them for Dim Sum at a local Chinese restaurant, imaginatively called "Chinese Restaurant".

Mt Tongariro
After a busy few days, we took our time on Sunday morning before sitting down for brunch at Capers Epicurean. On the drive back, we were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the active Tongariro volcanoes (Tongariro, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe) without cloud cover. Once again, I tested Trish's patience by pulling over every 5 minutes to take more pictures.

New Zealand has 3 big cities: Wellington (North Island), Christchurch (South Island) & Auckland (North Island) which I would rank in that order, Auckland being a distant third. It also has 3 "touristy" towns: Queenstown (South Island), Taupo (North Island) and Rotorua (North Island). Queenstown is hands-down the best experience we have had in New Zealand. Taupo was also very fun. We all felt that Rotorua "stretched" it a little bit. The town itself is not that attractive and the adventure attractions like the luge and Zorb seemed somewhat irreverent beside this "sacred Maori area". Like saying "Don't miss your chance to bungy above St. Peter's Basilica."

No particular story around the next picture. Trish didn't want to eat here for some reason.

[Insert witty joke here]
After our trip to Rotorua, we spent 5 of the next 6 weekends at home. I was on call Easter weekend and we went to see a rugby game in Wellington on May 6th.

The biggest travel update that I have waiting is our trip to Fiji which will be the subject of the next blog.

Monday, May 16, 2011

A dose of real life

A few followers have mentioned that they are disappointed that the flow of posts from this blog has slowed to a trickle. They have a point. April and May have seen a dramatic decrease in my posts. I averaged 7 posts in each of January, February and March, but only 4 in April and this is only the second in May so far.

As far as I can determine, there are several reasons for this.

First and foremost, we are traveling less. Coordinated with the beautiful sunshine of a late New Zealand summer and early fall, we traveled extensively during the first half of our trip. We were on the road for at least 2 of every 3 weekends. Since the beginning of April and our visit to Sharika Farm in central Hawke's Bay (the last blog post), we have been away only 2 of the last 7 weekends.

Sunday drive around the Manawatu 20 minutes from our house
The late fall weather has given us a lot of rain, somewhat on par with Montreal's spring. The weather has stayed warm varying between 10 - 20 C which is apparently very unusual for this time of year. I overheard a lady at the post office gleefully remarking to the clerk "We've had the longest summer." Indeed, flowers are still blooming and I was surprised to note that the gardens on the hospital property had all been cleared only to be replanted with pansies a few days later.

Fielding Dog Fair
We've been in New Zealand for 4 months now and have seen more of the country than most Kiwis. Palmerston North is centrally located and there are many places to visit within a couple of hours drive. And we've now been to most of them.

Easter egg hunting
Finally, we recently bought an iPad 2 and I'll admit to a recrudescence of a personal quality that most women tell me is the source of my animal magnetism: my unrelenting attraction to video games. I'll sheepishly admit that I've been spending my evenings playing Civilization Revolution rather than blogging. Sorry.

P90X Ab-Ripper X
So what have we been doing in the interim that I haven't been writing about? The remarkably unglamorous concept of real life: good days, bad days, sunny days, rainy days, kids laughing together, kids fighting, wife happy, wife ... less happy. The novelty of being somewhere other than Beaconsfield has worn off somewhat and the topic of returning to Canada has started to creep into our conversations more frequently. Yet we are all in unanimous agreement that it's too early to go home and there is a lot of exploring yet to be done. No one wants to return to Sidney-Cunningham without having had a crack at Fiji, Bali, Singapore and Australia. The desire to return home has further been dampened by the end of the hockey season and the sopping spring Montreal weather.

But I have two more adventures to relay in the next few days. In mid April, we spent a few days in Rotorua, the nerve center of Maori culture. We also went back to Wellington to satisfy one of the exit criteria for leaving New Zealand: seeing a rugby game played in the rain.

The kids' mother's day gift
And the next big thing is around the corner!  We're 5 days away from a glorious week on Fiji's coral coast. And I promise not to delay too long in showing you the pictures.

Post-script: Some (you know who you are) have asked me to confirm if the Coriolis effect is a real phenomenon. For those that don't recognize the name, it describes the effects of the earth's rotation on moving objects on the earth's surface. To cut to the chase, does water drain out of the toilet bowl in opposite directions in the northern and southern hemispheres? Lord Wikipedia tells me that the forces are apparently too small to account for any difference, but for what it's worth, clockwise in our New Zealand home.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Sharika Farm

Christmas season 2010 was challenging for gift-givers to our family as we were leaving for 8 months 3 days later. We gave our kids iPod Touch's in preparation for long plane rides - they could keep a slew of games, TV shows, movies and music all in the same device and I could squeeze in some educational stuff as well. In retrospect, they have been a double-edged sword of sorts. On one hand, they entertain the kids for hours. They're great for restaurants when Trish and I want to enjoy a more leisurely meal and bottle of wine while these crafty devices keep the kids from fidgeting out onto the street. On the other hand, as we drive through amazing New Zealand countryside and Trish and I ooh and aah at the stunning scenery, any attempt to distract them from their 4.4" x 2.3" screens is a complete waste of time. If they hear us at all under their earphones, their interest is limited to the briefest of glances and a conciliatory "Hmmph."

Farmland in central Hawke's Bay ignored by the kids in favor of the latest episode of Glee
My parents gave their gift a little more thought. They arranged a New Zealand farmstay for the whole family on a weekend of our choosing. We visited Sharika Farm in central Hawke's Bay on the weekend of April 1 - 3.

Given that a field with a sheep or cow in it is never more than 20 minutes drive away from anywhere in New Zealand (even downtown Auckland or Wellington), equating rural with remote would be a big mistake. To get to Porangahau, the nearest town to Sharika Farm, we drove 2 hours from anything that resembled civilization. To Trish's delight, we swerved along more serpentine roads in the failing light. Three of the 5 occupants in the vehicle felt carsick. For over an hour, we didn't see another car traveling in either direction.

Sharika Farm
We arrived in Porangahau, population 243, well after dusk and easily found Sharika Farm 10 minutes along the road that followed the Pacific coast. Our hosts, Sheryl & Andrew, had a delicious pasta dinner waiting for us. After supper, anticipating an early start the next day, we retired to our quarters for the night. All five of us slept in a large single room which was as rustic as I expected a farmhouse to be. It was relatively uninsulated from the cool mountain air, but the beds were comfortable and piled high with warm blankets. Sheryl's artwork decorated the walls. Andrew had considered renovating the guest accommodations on the farm, but had decided to leave them as is in order to provide a more genuine farm experience. 

To our delight,  a rooster started to crow at 5:10 and every 20 minutes after that. By the third time, we were all lying in our beds wide awake and giggling at this rooster that seemed to have it's own built in snooze button. Or maybe it had to pee.

Sheryl & Andrew pride themselves on living off their farm. They grow all their own fruits & vegetables and all their meat comes from animals from their farm. They barter for other goods with other farmers in the area. The grocery store supplies only the bare minimum. We were treated to a country breakfast and then it was off to feed the chickens and the infernal rooster.

Andrew took us on a tour of his property and let us in on the day-to-day workings of a cattle and sheep farm. The children were infatuated with how much poo littered the fields. Like Easter eggs, they ran from mound to mound yelling "Cassandra, look at this! It's another huge poo!" Apart from keeping an eye on where I was stepping, the landscape was a portrait of green. So lush! And with the Pacific Ocean less than a mile away, the view was awesome!

Harrison with Mace and Tasha
The kids made friends with the dogs Mace & Tasha and Sheryl's pet goat Nat Nat that was convinced that he was a dog as well. Nat Nat quickly became their favorite. There wasn't much point in keeping track of where they were at any one time - they were always playing with Nat Nat.

The kid's new best friend Nat Nat, the pet goat
Sheryl spends a lot of her free time painting and riding their horses around their large property. She draws inspiration for her art from the animals on the farm and the rugged landscape of central Hawke's Bay. The kids got a chance to meet Charlotte, the beautiful & friendly black horse, and Abby, the very grumpy older black and white speckled horse. They each got a little ride around the farmyard.

Harrison riding the grumpy horse.

Mackenzie & Cassandra having their turns.
To round out a very busy morning, Andrew demonstrated his principle trade - sheep shearing. The two dogs, Mace & Tasha, expertly cleared the paddock of all 100 or so sheep. As Sheryl directed the sheep through a series of narrow wooden channels in the stable, Andrew sorted the black-faced Suffolk sheep (who need shearing only once a year) from the white-faced Romney sheep (who can be shorn up to twice per year).
Watching Romney's about to get a haircut
Apart from tending to his own herd, Andrew leaves the farm for periods of as long as 3 months to go shear sheep in Italy, Spain and Scotland. Apparently, he makes a fortune doing it, as he can shear well over 400 sheep per day! He was leaving to go to Italy for three months later in the week after our visit.

Andrew hard at work
Once the sheep were sorted, Andrew chose a lucky few to shear before a captive audience. The skill seems to lie in propping the 150 lb. animal in such a position that it doesn't struggle to get free or try to regain its balance. Andrew certainly made it look easy as he pinned the animal in various positions such that it almost seemed to obediently pose itself for its haircut. In Queenstown, we had seen another farmer really botch a sheep shearing, leaving the animal bleeding from a few different places. The kids were in charge of gathering the wool and putting it into these massive bags that are then transported to a dealer.

After lunch, we walked out to the field where the calves were grazing. They are separated from the adults (especially those trouble-making bulls) to limit the teen pregnancy rate among cows. Sheryl & Andrew seemed to have some preparations to make for his upcoming trip so we were on our own for the afternoon.

Longest place name in the world
Just outside Porangahau, we took advantage of the photo op of an otherwise unremarkable hill called Taumata­whakatangihanga­koauau­o­tamatea­turi­pukakapiki­maunga­horo­nuku­pokai­whenua­kitanatahu (85 letters!), the longest place name in the world. Yup, did that, snapped a few pictures, passed on the T-shirt.

Next, we spent two hours walking along the deserted Porangahau beach which was spectacular. Then back to the farm for a nap and some downtime before Sheryl served us a delicious roast lamb dinner.

Our morning hike
The rooster was hungover on Sunday (works every time!), so we were able to sleep in until 7:30am. Sheryl was taking care of another farm and the flock had broken through a fence, so that the rams were all mixed up with lambs and some sheep had wandered outside the confines of the farm. Our mission that Sunday morning was to gather the strays and separate horny rams from virginal lambs. We hiked along the mouth of the Porangahau River to look for stragglers and once all the flock was together again, we were a part of the same sorting procedure we had witnessed the day before.

With the reproductive practices of the flock once again under control, we returned to Sharika Farm to gather our things and say goodbye to Andrew & Sheryl. The kids, especially Mackenzie, spent some quality time with Nat Nat.

Mackenzie with Nat Nat

As a footnote, were any of you wondering what Taumata­whakatangihanga­koauau­o­tamatea­turi­pukakapiki­maunga­horo­nuku­pokai­whenua­kitanatahu means?