Passport Patience in Petone

While waiting for Dan’s new passport to arrive, we settled into a cheap Air BnB in Petone (pronounced Pay-toe-nay), a suburb of Wellington. We used this down time (and the lousy weather) to catch up on internet chores, read books, watch movies, and cook in a kitchen with fewer than five other guests bumping into you.

Once the rain cleared, we had a nice view of Wellington Harbour and explored one of the nature trails nearby.

Wellington Harbour seen from our Air BnB.
Korokoro Dam, built to increase water pressure to fight fires in Petone back in the day.
We even found our first real-world Hobbit Hole!

In the end, Dan’s passport arrived in less than two weeks. We missed the time we had planned in Sydney, but were able to catch a flight to Melbourne.

“Fly, you fools!”

Back in the Van – Part 2

While Dan met with the Canadian High Commission in Wellington to plead for a new passport as soon as humanly possible, Wendy took a day trip to Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula outside Christchurch. She walked through the Hinewai Reserve, admiring the beautiful views of the bay and ocean coast.

Wendy was given custody of Jean LeCastor for the day so she could take him on the Hinewai hike.

With the passport application submitted, Dan flew back to Christchurch on Saturday March 30 and we drove up the East Coast to Marlborough. We arbitrarily chose a convenient campsite in Rarangi, and were informed by the host upon arrival that there were a couple caves nearby with glowworms – a New Zealand phenomenon that we thought we were going to miss.

Our phone cameras are not suited to taking the long-exposure shots necessary to appreciate the glowworms. However if we shine a light on them, we can see the sticky silk threads they deploy to capture prey.

Taking advantage of the sunny Sunday skies, we drove up into Marlborough Sounds and hiked up to a lookout by Mistletoe Bay. The highway is very narrow and winding, reminding us of the Highway 1 drive down the California coast.

Monday morning was rather gloomy, so we absconded to the vineyards to sample a few Marlborough wines. We visited Lawson’s Dry Hills, Clos Henri, Huia, and No. 1 Family Estate, all of whom had some delicious wines on offer. The Sauvignon Blanc from Huia was a unique example for the region and the bubbles from No. 1 lived up to the name.

The skies cleared as we wrapped up our vineyard tour.

We had to return the van by Wednesday so on Tuesday we continued the drive back down the East Coast.  We stopped for a lunch break in Kaikoura, where we went for a short walk up to a lookout and then out on the shore before the rain threatened to return.

Point Kean Viewpoint. There are probably some seals hiding in this shot.

We made it back to Christchurch ready for a hot shower and a real bed indoors. We have since flown back to Wellington and are currently awaiting the arrival of Dan’s new passport.

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Our failed attempt at circumnavigating the South Island

Back in the Van – Part 1

On March 21 we picked up our campervan rental and set out on our journey to circumnavigate the South Island of New Zealand. Unlike our old Captain Caravan, the Spaceships rental minivan was actually designed for camping, including a large storage unit housing a permanent refrigerator and battery pack, on top of which one arranges a set of cushions to create a pretty comfortable bed.


Our first stop was Mt. Sunday, AKA Edoras from Lord of the Rings. Thanks to a 25km gravel road, the site is not too popular and we practically had it to ourselves.

Mt. Sunday, AKA “Edoras” is a small mountain in the middle of a valley.

From there we continued southwest and visited the eastern side of Mt. Cook, next to lake Pukaki. The hike through Hooker Valley was very popular, but provided gorgeous views of the mountains and glaciers without much climbing.

Driving towards Mt. Cook.

That night we camped at Lake Poaka, one of the free sites operated by the New Zealand Department of Conservation. Camping in New Zealand is quite different from what we were accustomed to in North America. It is rare to find numbered campsites, reservations are pretty much non-existent, fire pits are extremely rare, and only about one in ten campsites has a picnic table. That said, the lack of reservations offers more flexibility, particularly when travelling off peak season.

Camping at Lake Poaka.

At this point we could see in the forecast that much of the south and west coast of the island was due to get several days of rain. With this in mind, we had a long day of driving and made it to Fiordland. We camped in the national park by Lake Gunn, and rose early the next morning to make it to Milford Sound before the rains hit. We were lucky to arrive at low-tide, allowing us to venture out past the shoreline.

Milford Sound. It’s actually a fjord.

The rain mostly held off through the morning, giving us time to hike up to Key Summit. The supposedly excellent views were obscured by the clouds, but we enjoyed wandering around the unique alpine wetlands at the summit.

Alpine wetlands at Key Summit.

From Fiordland, we had to backtrack to Queenstown before heading towards the West Coast, aiming for Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier. This drive took a couple days, and again the worst of the rain held off so we were able to appreciate some more of New Zealand’s gorgeous scenery.

Then on Tuesday March 26, it f***ing poured.

We drove slowly (50-60 km/h on 100 km/h roads), crossed many rushing brown rivers, and drove through four sections of flooded highway. When we arrived in the town of Fox Glacier we were told by the holiday park host that the road we drove in on had just been closed. It continued raining intensely until the next morning. One nearby village reported more than 1 metre of rain in 48 hours.

“Allow extra time on New Zealand roads.”  Yeah, ’cause they’re flooded.

When we woke in the morning we were informed that the bridge to Franz Josef had been washed away in the floods. Since this is the only northern route out of Fox Glacier, we were forced to backtrack south, through Queenstown again, and all the way back to Christchurch.

Unfortunately during the rainstorm Dan’s passport sustained some water damage. This put the road trip on pause for a couple days while he flew back to Wellington to submit an application for a replacement. Tune in next time for Part 2!

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We visited Christchurch twice in the past two weeks – once prior to picking up our camper van rental and once upon returning said van. We originally planned on taking the inter-island ferry, but discovered it was cheaper to fly directly from Wellington to Christchurch.

View of the Southern Alps on the flight from Wellington to Christchurch.

Our first visit to Christchurch was less than one week after the massacre at two of the city’s mosques. This was naturally on our minds throughout our time here. The atmosphere of the city has felt quiet and sombre. We walked through the Botanic Gardens on both of our visits, and in both cases we found a large memorial of flowers, written messages, candles, and paintings lining the entrance.

The memorial remains in place three weeks after the massacre.

We attended a small ceremony outside one of the mosques where local Maori performed a Haka to show solidarity with those affected. Overall there has been a big outpouring of love and support here, though it’s impossible for us to really understand how difficult this must be for the local Muslim community.

Walking around Christchurch, it’s still easy to see the effects of the major earthquake in 2011. Apparently 80% of the structures in the Central Business District were damaged beyond repair. Currently, the downtown core features plenty of new modern structures as well as plenty of cranes working to tear down abandoned buildings and construct their replacements.

The front wall and steeple of the Christchurch Cathedral were knocked down during the 2011 earthquake.
This “transitional” cathedral was built to serve the city until the original cathedral can be repaired.
A common sight in Christchurch.

We also visited the “Quake City” museum to learn more about the earthquake. We listened to personal accounts of the events and learned about the phenomenon of liquefaction whereby sandy soil vibrating during the quake can act as a liquid, swallowing the buildings and infrastructure above.

Memorial to the 185 victims of the 2011 earthquake.

The Capital City

We travelled south from Taupo to Wellington on the InterCity bus. Thankfully the views of mountains, forests, and the ocean made the six-hour ride pretty enjoyable.

Hearing that Wellington is one of New Zealand’s more alternative cities, we set out our first night to catch a local rock show. It served mainly as a reunion gig for the 80s post-punk band Wazzo Ghoti (pronounced “Wazzo Fish”), who still played with tons of energy. Opener Kosmo-∅ (pronounced “Cosmonaut”) put on an excellent Sonic Youth influenced noise rock show.

Kosmo-∅ shoegazin’

We took advantage of the national capital’s free museums, visiting Te Papa, the City Gallery Wellington, and the Wellington Museum. At Te Papa, AKA Museum of New Zealand, the most interesting exhibits were about the treaty signed between the Maori and the British government and the full-scale Maori meeting house. The City Gallery only had one exhibit open, making for a short visit. The Wellington Museum had a lot of detail about the city’s history, including labour disputes at the city’s docks in the early 20th century and the Wahine ferry disaster of 1968.

Exhibit by Yona Lee at City Gallery Wellington
Parliament Buildings. The left portion was completed in the 1960’s and is referred to as “the Beehive”.

Wellington is surrounded by a green belt of steep hills, which seems to have made it more effective than Ottawa’s green belt. We hiked up Mt. Victoria, which provides panoramic views of the city and nearby bays.

Wellington from Mt. Victoria
South Pole that way. Sides of the sculpture are painted to show the Aurora Australis, sometimes visible from New Zealand.


Wellington is also the craft beer capital of New Zealand, and we were naturally compelled to stop by a few breweries. Garage Project and Tuatara both had a very good lineup of beers. While maybe a little less adventurous than the North American beer scene, the breweries we’ve visited have offered a wide variety of styles rather than just endless tweaks on the IPA.

“It comes in pints!? I’m getting one.” – Peregrin Took

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

South of Lake Taupo, a giant lake formed by a volcano about 27000 years ago, lies Tongariro National Park, home to Mt. Ngauruhoe AKA “Mt. Doom”. Considering its size and symmetrical conical shape, Peter Jackson decided this particular mountain should be used as the basis for Mordor’s volcano.


As a day trip from Taupo, we undertook the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a 19.4km trek lauded as one of the best day-hikes in New Zealand. The hike starts out easily enough, winding through marshy hills, but then suddenly gets serious with a climb up the side of Mt. Ngauruhoe and then into a large crater.

Not quite “the Dead Marshes”.
Jean LeCastor working his way up Mt. Ngauruhoe.

The walk through the crater is almost eerily flat. The day was rather foggy and grey, so we had to continuously check behind us to see if the summit of Mt. Doom would reveal itself.

Walking through the South Crater felt more like a hazy desert than a volcano.
Mt. Doom became much less intimidating when the rainbow showed up.

Climbing higher, we arrived at the highest point of the hike with a view of The Red Crater. With the barren rocky terrain, it was easy to see how this site would have been used to represent Mordor.

The Red Crater

Shortly after beginning the descent, one arrives at the Emerald Lakes and is treated to views of the rocky plains below.



Leaving the volcanic terrain, the hike then transitions back into bushy vegetation and eventually through a lush forest with lahar warnings. Unaware of what a lahar was, and whether or not it could chase us, we continued quickly to the end as advised.


Aching from the climb, our only other day in Taupo was spent relaxing, including a visit to the local hot springs to soothe our legs. This was also the day of the tragedy in Christchurch. It has been frustrating to reflect and accept that this disgusting hatred can exist anywhere. However, the immediate showing of love and support from the country  and the response of the prime minister have been hopeful.

Rotorua Smells

The main reason for our visit to Rotorua was to see the natural geothermal wonders of the area, but we always seem to forget about the sulphuric odour associated with such things.

The otherworldly views of a hydrogen sulphide-ridden landscape.

The highlight of our time in Rotorua was a visit to the Te Puia geothermal and cultural complex. Located on Maori land and operated by Maori people, Te Puia is home to Pohutu, the largest geyser in the Southern Hemisphere.


The area has seven active geysers and at least 65 geyser vents, along with bubbling mud pools and hot springs. At this location the Earth’s crust is only 5 km thick, so the nearby magma heats underground waterways and forces water and steam to the surface.

We had an excellent tour guide from the nearby Whakarewarewa village. The full name of the area is Tewhakarewarewatangaoteopetauaawahiao, meaning ‘the gathering place for the war parties of Wahiao’. While this name seems long, we were told the longest Maori word (and reportedly the longest word in the world) is 92 letters long, about three times longer than this one.

Attempted panorama of Maori war canoe.

We learned the Maori were drawn to the active geothermal areas not long after their arrival in this part of the world about 800 years ago. They used the steam vents for cooking and heating, and they maintained excellent skin thanks to the mud baths and alkaline water pools.

The Maori would plunge woven baskets filled with food into cooking pools like this.
Bubbling mud pool! Probably too hot for a bath.

Te Puia also includes a Maori cultural centre where young Maori can apprentice in wood carving, stone carving, weaving, or tattooing. Apparently all Maori tattoos are done free-hand and are customised to the tattooed person’s story. Finally, Te Puia houses a couple kiwis in a dark enclosure. We knew pretty much nothing about this bird before arriving in New Zealand. Turns out it’s a fluffy flightless nocturnal endangered bird with beady eyes.

Back in town, we took a stroll to Sulphur Point (smells as bad as it sounds), and on the way stopped at the Arawa War Memorial. Depicting King George V and a Te Arawa chief, it honours the 500 Te Arawa men who served in WWI, of whom 39 were killed.



Baggins! Shire!

The shrieks of Gollum and the soundtrack melody of The Shire filled our heads on our visit to The Hobbiton Movie Set. Located on an old family farm near Matamata, the area features 44 hobbit holes (including Bag End, residence of Bilbo and Frodo), the party tree, the water wheel, and of course The Green Dragon, home to “the only brew for the brave and true”.


While the family who owns the farm provided some tours after The Lord of the Rings films, it wasn’t until after The Hobbit films that the set became a major tourist attraction. This is because the set design for The Lord of the Rings used temporary materials and was torn down following production.  Seeing an opportunity for future tourism revenue, the team behind The Hobbit was persuaded to build a permanent Hobbiton set with excavated hobbit holes, doors and frames made from real wood, and a functioning pub.

Party field and Party Tree!
Jean LeCastor visits Bag End.

The tour guide guide pointed out the most famous hobbit holes and provided a few neat facts about the filming process. For example, in order to show the size difference between the hobbits and Gandalf, Sir Ian McKellen was filmed in front of hobbit holes built at 60% scale. The film crew had to be careful to never show hobbit holes of different sizes in the same shot. We also learned that many of the orcs were played by members of the New Zealand army, who also helped to excavate the site for set construction.

Home of Samwise Gamgee.

The tour finishes with a hobbit-sized mug of ale at The Green Dragon. They were quite light, but both the stout and amber ale were surprisingly tasty.

Kia Ora, Auckland!

Landing in New Zealand was a breath of fresh air, mostly in the literal sense. The sky was more blue than we had seen in weeks and the hills in the distance were clearly visible without the smog to which we had become accustomed.

Landing in New Zealand also meant a change in lifestyle – the Asian accommodation prices are now in the past so we slept in a hostel dorm for the first time since 2010 (just a 4-person dorm… we learned our lesson after attempting an 18-person dorm in Dublin). All was well and we met plenty of friendly travellers.

It did not take us long to find sheep in New Zealand.

On our first full day in Auckland we took the bus out to One Tree Hill, one of the more prominent volcanic hills in the area. The original tree was cut down by a settler in 1852 (possibly for firewood). Other trees were later planted and a single pine tree survived until 2000 when it was cut down by Maori activists. Nine more trees were planted at the summit in 2016 in collaboration with the Maori people, with the plan of eventually having a single survivor.

Next we walked to Mt. Eden, which features a large volcanic crater along with excellent views of central Auckland.

The crater of Mt. Eden and downtown Auckland in the background.
New Zealand War Memorial and the Auckland Museum.

We used the following day to explore the downtown core and walk along the piers. It turns out about a third of the country’s 4.8 million residents live here, so the city is more dense and built up than one might expect for New Zealand. We popped into one craft beer bar for a pint (which was excellent), but chose to stop at one given that pints typically go for $10-12 here.


There are giant freakin’ palm trees in Auckland. (Or regular-sized palm trees with hobbits… who knows.)

Our next couple days were relatively quiet due to large amounts of rain. We visited one art gallery, The Wallace Arts Centre, and were impressed by the local works on display. In particular we loved the drawings by Susan Te Kahurangi King, a self-taught artist who lost the ability to speak by the age of 8 and whose work evolved from surreal cartoon-like drawings to complex geometric patterns.

Feeling the need to sample Auckland’s nightlife, on Friday we decided to check out the Ding Dong Lounge. In memory of Keith Flint, the Prodigy singer who passed away last week, the bar was playing their tunes all evening (at least until the fans from the Red Hot Chili Peppers concert arrived post-gig). The bar had a good vibe, drawing in more punks than hipsters, and Dan was delighted to revisit his favourite Prodigy songs.



Power of Seoul

Seoul is a gigantic city with one of the most complex-looking metro systems we’ve had to navigate. Seriously, look at this:


Luckily our hostel was located in Hongdae by Hongik University on the Airport Express line. Of the places we’ve visited on this trip so far, Seoul seemed most similar to Canada – not least because of the near-freezing temperatures and bare trees. The city covers a huge area but it does not feel terribly dense. There are large sidewalks and streets, and in most neighbourhoods the buildings don’t rise more than a few stories. Also taking into consideration the amazing food, friendly and interesting youth culture, and a healthy level of respect for the rules (somewhere between Southeast Asia and Japan), the city seemed quite liveable.

On our first full day in South Korea we headed straight for its northern border to see the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). The tour starts with an introductory video featuring an oddly dramatic soundtrack and jumps quickly from the Korean war to a celebration of the beauty and wildlife of the DMZ, and then concludes “Until reunification, the DMZ will live on forever!!” We were able to visit one of the tunnels that North Korea had built in hopes of invading the South, and were given the opportunity to look into North Korea with binoculars to see the mostly empty (and in one case, fake) cities closest to the border.

The hills in the distance are located in North Korea. Though the view of the cities is mostly obstructed by the pan-Asian smog, the white dot at the base of the hills in the middle is a building in a real city in North Korea.

One of the main reasons for our visit to Seoul was to see Dan’s friend Isaac and for the two of them to perform a concert as half of their band The Vanishing Act (Lee and Gary could not make it to Seoul this time). Metal is not huge in Korea, but Isaac has made good friends in the local scene and plays in a few bands. His friend runs the local venue GBN Live House and was able to throw together a show to give The Vanishing Act a chance to make their first international appearance. Dan hadn’t touched a drum set since June 2018, and Isaac hadn’t played the songs since then either, but they pulled off a good set and even drew in enough of a crowd to get paid!

We used our remaining time in Seoul to do a bit more sightseeing and spend some more time with Isaac. We visited the Gyeongbokgung Palace, where a highschool student practising his English provided us with a free tour.

Jean LeCastor visits Seoul!

Next we wandered over to the Bukchon Hanok Village, and then to the dense shopping area of Myeongdong. We also visisted the Korean War Memorial museum and learned a ton about the evolution of the conflict between the North and South.

Limo formerly owned by Kim Il-sung, leader of North Korea from its formation in 1948 until his death in 1994. The museum stated that after this limo was abandoned in the South by Kim during the war, it was gifted to an American and it eventually ended up in a collector’s garage in New Jersey before returning to South Korea.

Naturally we ate a ton of Korean food while in Seoul. We enjoyed jjimdak (a saucy braised chicken dish served on glass noodles), bibimbap, gimbap (random meat and veggies rolled in rice and seaweed, looking like a sushi roll), chimaek (literally just fried chicken with beer), tteokbokki (stir-fried rice cakes in chili sauce with fish cakes), table BBQ, kalguksu (chopped noodle soup), and lots of kimchi!

Jjimdak – once finished with the chicken, the bowl of crispy fried rice is stirred into the remaining delicious sauce.