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Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Monday, June 16, 2008

Te Apua, New Zealand

We’re in Te Apua, New Zealand for a two-night stay. Mark and I take in the local attractions at a leisurely pace the full day we’re there.

Te Apua is home to the visitor’s center for Fjordland National Park, and after breakfast we ride our bikes there to see the introductory film, even though we’ve already visited the park, and we buy a magnet to add to our collection.

We walk to a bird sanctuary where one of two takahe is in the open so we get a good look. The bird is oddly shaped, almost spherical, with peacock-blue feathers underlain with dark purple. The beak is orange as are the legs and big-taloned feet. At the turn of the 20th century, the takahe were thought to have gone extinct. However, in 1950, while hiking deep within Fjordland National Park, a doctor rediscovered one. Today 200 takahe are thought to be roaming the wild. The male we see is about half the size of a large turkey.

And speaking of turkey, New Zealanders don’t eat it nor do the Europeans on the tour. All whom we ask about it respond in kind, similar to how I would respond if a foreign visitor were to exclaim, “You mean you don’t eat squirrel?!” Some may have tasted it, but it’s more of a game bird to them. And though not quite as plentiful as squirrels are in Southwest, Ohio, wild turkeys do roam all over New Zealand, both the north and the south islands—because no one eats them!

We take the afternoon boat across the lake to the Glowworm Caves. A powerful, noisy stream runs through the cave. Mark and I, in a group of 14, cram into a tiny boat and are instructed to stay quiet so as not to disturb the worms. The boat carries us to the grotto where hundreds of tiny spots of blue glow far above our heads, like constellations.

To me it seems unreal and I wonder if this is like a carnival attraction. Surely, the operator has secured a blue light to the actual cave ceiling and built a drop ceiling into which holes are poked at random to let the light shine through. I think we’ve been had.

However, further into the cave the points of light are on the cave walls, and the boat carries us close enough that I can blow on one. It moves! And from the light of an adjacent worm I can see the original worm squirm around. The hungrier the worms are, the brighter they glow—to attract insects. I blow on (disturb) several more worms before Mark scolds me with a nudge.

We bike back for dinner, and after dinner that night, Mark and I ride into town to the cinema. The posh theatre sells candy but not popcorn, and the movie has an intermission to allow folks to come to the lobby for wine. Fancy.

After biking back for our second night at this camp, we lie side by side in our sleeping bags, glad that we have to set this tent up only once more.

New Zealand's South Island

People sit in their own, self-dug spas on Hot Water Beach on the Coromandel Peninsula, where geothermally heated water bubbles up through the sand. By the time we get there, every square foot of beach is claimed, but people are friendly and invite us into their pools.

We hole hop, wondering if one will offer something different from the others. Some are more boil-y, and some are too hot for more than a touch from us, though little kids sit submerged with plastic shovel and bucket, fruitlessly digging to the source.

The country’s tallest peak is Mt. Cook, or what was originally named Mt. Aoraaki by the Maori, meaning peace and clouds. On the way there from our hot baths, our driver pulls off the road to let us snap shots of the snow-covered peak; he says it’s usually cloud-covered. It is magnificent.

Our camp that night is a rustic one with a single outhouse but the best view. We erect our tents riverside across from Mt. Cook, which reaches into a still-mostly-clear sky.

In Dunedin we tour the unimpressive Cadbury chocolate factory the next day before traveling on to Fjordland National Park and Mt. Cook.

Only one road leads into Fjordland, and to reach the end takes hours, but it’s worth the time. My bike and I are dropped along the way, and I glide downhill around hairpin turns 10 miles to meet the group at the marina of Milford Sound. The curvy switchbacks would be thrilling to tear around, I’m sure, but I’m careful since I’m biking alone.

We all take a 2-hour ferry tour of Milford Sound. Bottle-nosed dolphins breech around the boat, staying with us for 5 minutes. The captain says they appear for only about 10% of the cruises. He also says he’s never seen the water more calm. We all feel blessed to be here on this unusually clear spring day.

The cliff faces, the waterfalls, the sun-bathing sea lions, all are special, and upon disembarkation from the ferry, some describe the experience as spiritual. Mark and I are less moved, but we are the oldest in the group and have likely borne witness to more amazing and existential natural phenomena. We hope New Zealand brings us more.