Heading to a world down under

For years we have been talking about wanting to visit New Zealand. In fact, I almost took a job there a few years ago (well before we joined the rollercoaster expat life we now call normal) but then the job was offered to someone else and our lives took a different path.

But now, living in Asia (oh, so close to New Zealand), we had no other choice but to hop onto a few (long) flights and visit the world down under. Normally, John takes care of most of the travel logistics but this time around, I took the lead and read whatever I could to plan our 3-week visit.

It also helped to have a few friends from the world down under who offered excellent advice and one who hosted us for a super fun afternoon of swimming and chatting.

So, before Christmas just when school had ended for the year, we journeyed way, way South to find ourselves driving and navigating new terrains from the other side of the road. A few funny things happen when you suddenly find yourself driving while sitting on what you normally think of as the passenger seat. For one, you become quickly familiar with the windshield wipers. You see, for some unknown reason, the blinker and the windshield wiper functions are still on the same side of the steering wheel as you are used to. However, your brain naturally assumes that this should not be the case since you are sitting somewhere completely different and you quickly find yourself cleaning your front window whenever you want to turn left.

Also, you suddenly are very mindful of the fact that you need to stay on the left side of the road. So much in fact, that you can’t seem to keep your car centered on the road and you generally find yourself way, way on the left side of the road which might lead some passengers to repeatedly freak out and yell out “you’re too far left, John, you are TOO FAR LEFT – you’re going to kill us” or something like that. I did mention we started driving right after getting off some pretty long flights, right? Oh the joys of navigating unfamiliar terrains – it’s why we travel … to learn, right?

So, after hopping off the red-eye flight to Auckland and finally getting our rental car (why it took 3 hours to actually get a car after we had a reservation is still beyond me), we clumsily managed staying left, windshield wipers, and blinkers as we made our way to our first stop – the Coromandel peninsula on North Island.

We stayed at a comfy cottage at the Church in Hahei (don’t you just love that town name?!) and succumbed to the exhaustion of traveling and keeping the car on the left side on the road (but not too far left) and slept in the following morning (fun fact, there is currently a 5-hour time difference between Mongolia and New Zealand – no, that is not obvious when you look at the world map).

The next day, we set out to explore the Hot Water Beach in which visitors are encouraged to dig their own hot tubs around low tide. Since there is so much volcanic and geothermal activity in New Zealand (which explains why the roads are curvy and hilly and sometimes not to everyone’s liking), the water underneath the sand becomes extremely hot during low tide.

So, we shuffled our jet-lagged selves to the beach and put the kids to work. They dug for a while and we waited and waited for the water to turn warm. Eventually, some of the pools around us started steaming and turning very, very hot – but not ours. So, we hopped around and found a new place to dig before the sky turned dark and we found ourselves running back to the car to differentiate between left and right. It was a good thing we already knew how to turn on the windshield wipers!

The next day, we hiked around the beautiful Cathedrale Cove and explored Chum’s beach, one of the most beautiful on earth (or so people say).

We were not disappointed by the scenery – something Juliana made sure to capture on her camera every 5 seconds or so. Yes, we have a new budding photographer in our family – Juliana proudly hijacked my Dad’s old camera and made it hers. And as the story will tell, it’s a good thing we had a back-up camera on this trip.

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Our next stop in the North Island brought us to the beautiful Rotorua area. To break up the drive (and to ease the anxieties of drifting way too far on the left side of the road while juggling windshield wipers), we stopped in Thames to explore the Goldmine Experience and learn a few things about mining for gold. Lucky for us, kids traveling from Mongolia had free admission that day which turned out to be a good thing since both kids freaked out when it was time to go into the mine (despite the fact that we discussed this scenario of dark, long corridors at length in the car – perhaps promising that they could keep all the gold they could find once inside). Nevertheless, a fun stop with a funny guide who was not shy to share his thoughts on current events in our home county these days.

In Rotorua, we stayed at the beautiful Tumbledown Hill Farmstay where our hosts (Vilna & Pierre) treated us like family – inviting us to spend Christmas Eve together and organising a scavenger hunt for the kids. If you find yourself in that part of the world, spend some time with these lovely folks and let your kids roam the property and climb the treehouse.

We spent several days exploring the area but one thing was clear – we managed to come back pretty much every day to the best ice cream store in the world down under – Lady Jane’s. So yummy!

Most of New Zealand’s Maori people live on the North Island and there are many cultural events and performances offered by a number of different providers in the Rotorua area. We chose to spend an evening at the Tamaki Maori Village after carefully researching our options. It was an excellent, excellent evening – full of information about Maori life and done in a way that was engaging and fun. And yes, Luca and John did have to perform a haka dance. It was quite a sight!

Another highlight was a visit to Wai-O-Tapu, New Zealand’s geothermal “wonderland.” It was really remarkable to explore such bubbling activity up close!

Other fun North Island outings included the Waitomo glow-worm caves (no pictures allowed!), the Redwoods forest and a morning at the aMazeMe maze and garden. It turns out, New Zealanders have an obsession with building mazes …. it also turns out I have absolutely zero skill in making my way out of them.

I do, however, have far better skills at the many games we played during our down-time. There were many, many battles of Spoons (and many subsequent meltdowns from children too slow to pick up a spoon to stay in the game), intense sessions of American History Go Fish (seriously, it’s a thing – fresh out of the American History in a Box – we all had so much fun learning history facts this way).  John and I had nightly battles playing the Hive and whenever we had a free second to listen (or actually just looked like we could lend an ear), the kids informed us on all things Minecraft. Yeah, we learned a whole lot about Minecraft…

On Christmas Day, we hopped from the North to the South Island and continued to learn more and more about the exciting world of Minecraft.

Stay tuned for part 2 of our travels down under.

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