Time Out

Traditional Maori greeting - the hongi
If there’s an ideal holiday plan, it must include a little of a lot of things and the first item on my list is the absence of work.  I was already knee-deep in so much work that while travel plans were being made, I left it to my sister and sister-in-law to discuss and agree on the itinerary and activities.  Much closer to the travel dates, I tuned into the discussions and learnt that we will meet with my nephew, Aaron and his girlfriend in Sydney airport and leave together for Auckland, New Zealand.  The first sector of our trip is a self-drive journey from Auckland Airport to Lake Taupo and a car with sufficient space for six adults and our luggage, is reserved for collection on our arrival.

This is our first visit to a region where there is active volcanic activity and one of our most significant experiences must be the pungent pong of hydrogen sulphide in our nostrils.  While its pong resembles rotten eggs and is especially strong in and around Rotorua, it is still bearable and will not be missed.  Once we are out of that region, the air somehow tastes sweeter!

On the Boardwalk built across steaming mud pools!
We only read about it or watch it on TV documentaries so it’s especially fascinating for us to experience the hissing steam from little bore holes in the volcanic walls and watch bubbling pools of boiling mud.  And it’s truly a rare experience to watch a geyser shoot up into the air!  The brochure said that the Lady Knox geyser gives a daily show at 10.15am so we make it a point to arrive well in advance to avoid missing any action.  But we wondered how the geyser is timed for a daily show on a fixed schedule and speculated wildly with many theories about how it works…

Our curiosity is satisfied when the host gave a brief introduction on the discovery of this geyser hundreds of years ago.  At that time, prisoners were brought in to replant the forests and after their work, they would bathe and wash their clothes in the heated water of nearby springs.  Apparently, one day the prisoners were washing their clothes in the stream when detergent from their wash caused a reaction with the minerals in the water.  This resulted in an exploding geyser which threw the shocked prisoners and their clothes far and wide!

Since this discovery, the prisoners used to deliberately cause the geyser to erupt for their own entertainment.  So based on this principle, our host is now able to make the geyser sprout at the appointed time for the show every day! 

Green pool at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland
At the Wai-O-Tapu (Sacred Waters) Thermal Wonderland it’s exciting to see the wide range of colours of water caused by different mineral elements in the geothermal areas – green for colloidal sulphur/ferrous salts, orange for antimony, purple for manganese oxide, white for silica, Yellow for sulphur, Red-Brown for iron oxide and Black for sulphur and carbon.  I’m not any good at Chemistry but it’s still fascinating to see the wonders of Nature and its beautiful shades of natural colours.
The various collapsed craters and rock formations are given descriptive and obvious names like Devil’s Home, Rainbow Crater, Devil’s Ink Pots, Artist’s Palette, Opal Pool, The Champagne Pool, Inferno Crater and Devil’s Bath.  Walking across the Terrace on the Boardwalk is an experience unique to Wai-O-Tapu as the structure cuts across the terrace, and we are bordered by steaming pools on either side!

John with his demo of the Maori haka
expression - tongue out and eyes bulging!
A visit to New Zealand is not complete without a Maori experience and I’m delighted to learn that dinner reservations have been made with the Mitai Maori Village in Rotorua.  From the welcome and introduction, I’m already impressed with how things are handled with experience and a professional touch.  Of course, John, our host plays a vital role and he is quick to “break the ice” among the guests who joined the dinner.  From his ice-breaking activities, I discover that besides us, there were people from US, UK, several European countries and from Australia or “Across the Ditch” – as how the Kiwis say it to poke fun at their neighbours!

The Village is sprawled across 10 acres of land, built around a stream fed by natural springs.  I later found out that this is a family-run business set up 10 years ago and the 79-year old family patriarch is still contributing by playing a saxophone to provide jazzy background music as we settled in and during our dinner.  The entire experience at the Maori Village is so entertaining and interesting that before the evening is over, I had decided to write a separate piece on it. 

Check out the wet but very brave four on the last row!
Back at Taupo, we used the informative map as a guide to the various sites around the area and it is easy to follow the clearly signposted routes to many attractions.  The Huka Falls provided us with at least three different yet exciting activities – watching the dam open, joining the river cruise to the falls and getting an adrenalin rush in a Rapids Jet ride! 

The skipper of the boat in the Huka Falls river cruise invited us on board and told us to help ourselves to hot tea as the winds are so chilly.  Inside the cabin, the ceiling and walls are taped with real bank notes from nations worldwide – an indication of multi-national guests who have boarded his boat – and my brother even spotted a Malaysia Ten Ringgit note there!  The skipper is a fountain of information and he skillfully guided the boat on fiercely foaming water close to the falls as a large crowd watched us from the cliffs at the top of the falls.  

There's even a RM10 among all that money!
We choose to sit outside the cabin in the rear of the boat to enjoy the fresh air and almost at the last minute before we pushed off, a young Chinese lady jumped on board to join us.  As we enjoy the sights and experience, I start a conversation with the young lady – politely including her in our chit-chat (as she is alone and can obviously hear us!)  Then we learnt that she was apparently, hiking around the area and had lost her way.  When she met the skipper, he invited her to join the cruise before he closed for the day and then take her back to town.  So there she was among us. 

Kota Tinggi girls meet on Huka Falls
cruise, Taupo, New Zealand!
It’s super uncanny to discover that she is not only from Malaysia but even from Kota Tinggi, Johor!  My sister-in-law, who also hails from Kota Tinggi, has more in common with her and it was fun to see them exchanging info as we cruise along.  What are the chances of us Johoreans, meeting another traveller from Johor at the Huka Falls cruise in Taupo, New Zealand?  Huh?

From our accommodation at the Taupo Lakeside Villas, we enjoy a panoramic view of the majestic mountain range as a beautiful backdrop to the lake.  Every morning, after we admire the snow-capped mountains, cameras are whipped out to snap shot after shot and we picked a date to go up Mount Ruapehu, one of the snowy peaks in the Whakapapa National Park.  It was simply exciting to drive towards the mountains, park the car and walk up the path to the snowy foothills.

After hiring the ski equipment at the ticket office, we agreed to take a sightseeing trip to the peak before going to the lower slopes to ski.  The tour to the peak is by chair lifts and I can see people hopping on and off the chairs as the cable keep moving in a non-stop circuit.  There is no cabin or enclosure but open seats with just a safety bar across the front.  I have no time to consider its implications and suddenly it’s our turn.  I follow the instructions to step up to the line and as I allow the chair to scoop me up, I’m swung up into the air with my legs dangling down!!  Ruby and I are so absorbed with boarding the lift that we almost forget to lower the safety bar!  

Riding the ski chair at Mt Ruapehu
It’s simply breath-taking to be lifted off into the sky with the wind whipping around us, facing an amazing panoramic vista of dazzling snow with tiny skiers zipping along the slopes below.  The return ride is even more nerve-wracking and I keep my eyes squeezed tightly shut at the lift-off point because not only is descending a different experience, there is also a sheer drop below!  When the chair lurched forward with its momentum, I refuse to imagine what can happen if we did not pull the safety bar down on time!  Even as I look back on it now, I do not know how I did it but I did it! 

Ruby [Left] and me on the ski chair!
All too soon, our New Zealand adventure must come to an end.  We leave Taupo for a leisurely 3.5-hour drive along the Thermal Explorer Highway back to Auckland to catch our flight to Perth for the next leg of our holiday.  I have the privilege of the front passenger seat while the map-readers and navigators in the rear chat and loll in pleasant slumber in the morning cool.  About an hour before reaching Auckland Airport, traffic is significantly heavier on the single-lane highway.  Just as we are heading into an underpass, a 4WD vehicle towing a small trailer loaded with large sacks is coming towards us and suddenly lost control, crashed to the left side of the road while its trailer swung and hit the car in front of us!

The car and its elderly driver were slammed to the right edge of the road, pinned under airbags and his door jammed on the wall of the underpass.  Aaron, at the wheel and I who witnessed the entire accident, yelled in reflex and stopped our car.  The driver of the 4WD hopped out, unhurt and looked clearly distressed.  I saw people making phone calls and as my nephew, brother and sister-in-law went to try to help, we are relieved to learn that the man trapped in his car is all right but in shock.  In a few minutes, when an ambulance and other rescue teams arrived, we followed the locals who turned their cars around to take a detour and continued our journey to the airport. 
Family bonding at Freemantle
It’s late and cold when we arrive in Perth but my nephew, Andrew and his wife, are waiting to pick us.  The next few days are filled with sightseeing and renewing of our acquaintance with friends and their families who have moved to Perth.  Throughout our stay, we shared plenty of food [separate stories!] and fellowship and a wonderful time of family bonding. 

Friendly Ted and I at The Lily
Later in the week, Andrew and his wife took us South to visit Albany and we stayed at The Lily, a charming Dutch Windmill with self-catered accommodation at the foothills of the Stirling Range.  This is where I met Ted.  He’s not known as the world’s friendliest Border Collie for nothing because even before we were introduced, he approached me with a tennis ball in his mouth and dropped it in front of me.  I have no other choice but to respond by throwing the ball and Ted raced off to retrieve it, only to bring back to my feet and drop it there for me to repeat the whole exercise! 

I deeply appreciate the privilege of taking this refreshing time-out from my regular routine to share meaningful moments and make more memories with family and friends in an extended stay. 
At the Immigration counter in Perth Airport, the stern-looking officer accepted my passport with the completed departure form enclosed and he hardly gave me a glance.  However as he returned my passport, he cracked a smile and said in his Aussie drawl, “Hope you can write something nice about Australia!”  I’m sure I can find something nice to write about so just wait a while for more of my travel stories.


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