In this last part writing about our trip to NZ, I’m going to talk about how we catered to the interests, nay, obsessions of our family.
|Taieri Gorge Bridge|
Train trips formed an integral part of our NZ trip. In fact, we planned much of the route based on catching certain trains. With C’s train-obsession there was little choice in this matter, much to my DH’s horror. Most of these trains only ran on certain days so we had to plan our journey so that we arrived on the correct day for the ride.
This is a little 15min train ride just outside of Wellington, in Upper Hutt that you can take as many times as you want once you buy a ticket. It has a magnificent steam engine and a very cute station with a mini-museum. C and I actually got a chance to travel in the driver’s cabin and watch them shovel coal – it was very hot, and loud!
Taieri Gorge Railway
This was a 4 hour round trip in an adorable old carriage that wound up the mountains near Dunedin. There was a rather amusing commentary through the whole trip, and they even told a little story about a homeschooling family who eventually had their daughter catch the train to go to her high-school every day – very sweet. I wasn’t sure the kids would cope with the trip, due to it’s length, but they did very well. Mostly because the train wasn’t very full so they could both run around the carriage.
|Penguin at Oamaru|
Oamaru Train Ride
This was an unplanned train trip! We arrived in Oamaru only to see the steam train pull up in front. There was no escaping! And it was very cute – a little track out to the bay and back, maybe 20 mins in length. At the bay end, the driver took us into a train-shed and showed us the little penguin baby nested inside. They also had lovely open-air carriages so we could get a great view of the ocean and the town.
Driving Creek Railway
Of all the train rides, this was the one C most looked forward to travelling. Getting there was a bit of a nightmare – it’s at the very top of the Coromandel peninsula over some of the most winding roads I have ever seen. It’s not often that a 2-lane highway needs mirrors on the road so you can see around blind corners. Absolutely terrifying in a 3.5 tonne campervan.
The ride itself was adorable. It was built by a sculptor to get easy access to clay pits, and the route is dotted with the most amazing artwork. It winds right up the mountain, with many switch-backs, and even a section that goes right out into mid-air – you could see the whole bay in a 270 degree panorama (and just hoped the wooden platform held). The Driving Creek Railway also hosts artists to come and make their own creations, and uses the funds generated by the railway to do restoration and regeneration of the forest. All the materials used are recycled – even the retaining walls, which are made of glass bottles, arranged in amazing coloured patterns. The best part of the tour is actually the summit – a large viewing platform 2 stories high with a bar that’s never open, but made with the most exquisite woodwork – called the Eyefull Tower. From here, you can see right across to Auckland. This place was one of the highlights of the trip – a wonderfully quirky, eccentric highlight.
|Karangahake Gorge Tunnels|
Karangahake Gorge Tram Walk
The last train-extravaganza was a not-too long, DOC-created walk over an old tramway. It had scary swing bridges, and long, dark tunnels (bring a torch, really), long winding staircases, and paths along the edge of steep cliffs. Poor J was terrified of the tunnels, but both kids loved jumping on the bridges. It was misty and cold, with lots of puddles and off-shooting paths, and very amazing. C tried to convince us to wander into an unmarked tunnel, shudder. Thankfully we could point to signs that emphatically told us to leave them alone.
Bridges and Buildings
Auckland Sky Tower
|View of Auckland from the Sky Tower|
We didn’t have a lot of time in Auckland, but the no. 1 thing C wanted to do in Auckland – was go to the Sky Tower. We had to park almost out of the city to go here, and we walked along the Auckland docks and watched all the heavy machinery moving cargo. C loved it. Eventually we found the tower – only getting lost a few times. The Tower has a glass-bottom elevator with a glass wall so you can watch the skyline sink as you go up. There are many things I will do for my kids, and I had to use all of my courage to get into that elevator. You see, the only way I can tolerate elevators is if I can pretend I’m not moving. I sat down and held on. Naturally my kids had no fear at all, and I’m sure I amused quite a few fellow travelers.
The Sky Tower has three different public-access areas – two viewing platforms and one restaurant. The lower viewing platform has magnificent views over Auckland – and glass-floors around the edge. Sure, they’re small, but guess where J insisted she needed to stand? She ran from one glass floor to the other, stood in the middle and spent a lot of time looking straight down. My heart-rate is speeding up just thinking about it. DH took C up to the 2nd platform (another elevator ride I just could not do, though at the time I thought it was an even more open glass elevator. It wasn’t.), and I was left dodging other tourists while chasing J all around the Sky Tower. Many times around the tower – all via glass floors.
There were many bridges in NZ, mainly in DOC forest areas, such as at Pelorus Bridge, over enormous ravines. Yes, they swung; yes they felt rickety. Sometimes they has large gaps at the side that would fit small toddlers. Yes, I was glad every time when we left. There were also a few lovely low bridges that we drove over – incredibly wide over rocky river beds with rivers that to our Australian-eyes, already seemed very big, but were probably trickling.
And then there were the one-way bridges. On highways. These were very common, and a little terrifying – particularly when they were positioned on blind corners on roads with large amounts of heavy-truck traffic. One direction has to stop and let the other through – and it’s well-marked, but at the speed some of the oncoming trucks traveled, we tended to cross our fingers and hope that none needed to cross.
My DH and I are hopeless LOTR fans. Have been for years. And as much as we were able, with two children who didn’t like tours, and one who didn’t want to walk, we saw as many ‘sets’ as we could. We were aided in this by a copy of “The LOTR Location Guidebook“, which we had been reading for years, and which I used as a primary source to plan which locations we would visit.
I’ve previously talked about our Rivendell trip, so I won’t repeat that, instead I will talk about two of the other highlights, Hobbiton, and the Weta Workshop.
This was one of our only guided tours. Ignoring all the tourist brochures that indicated we should do a bus-tour from a major centre, I figured that we would be better off just showing up at Matamata. We were greeted by a large carpark, surrounded by sheep, and a visitors centre where you purchased tickets for the tour into Hobbiton.
|The Green Dragon|
Then it was onto a very old school-bus for a lovely driving tour around the edge, before a guide took us on a walking tour of Hobbiton. This was where J irredeemably destroyed her only pair of enclosed shoes in lots of muddy puddles. She loved it. After all, everything was her size. They even allowed people to open some of the Hobbit-doors and peek inside – a bit of a disappointment, as it was usually only a metre deep, and used for such exciting things as umbrella storage.
The whole set was beautifully maintained – apparently a condition of filming the Hobbit was that Weta had to create a permanent version of the set. As the farmer who owned the land now hired 20+ people to maintain Hobbiton and run the tour, it was obviously a big enterprise. As the bus rides left hourly every day, and our bus was pretty packed, despite being mid-week, I can well believe it.
|J loved the letterboxes|
The Green Dragon was also lovely – one of the few genuine buildings, and worth a ramble to look at all the small touches – small carvings, notices of market-day etc. There was also lots of room for the kids to run, which helped a lot.
On our second jaunt into Wellington, we were quite ill (straight off the ferry), and somewhat leery of guided tours. We missed a tour by only a minute or two so had a long time in the gift shop to debate whether it was worthwhile (the gift shop is full of lovely LOTR props). Middle-Earth over common-sense won the day and we went on the tour. Our decision was somewhat aided by the fact that Weta also did the Wotwots – a show J loves.
It was magnificent. The tour only takes you through one workshop, but that is one awesome space. C was fascinated by the process of creating head-casts, as well as the casts themselves – he was very excited to see and touch the material that the Mythbusters are always using to make ballistics-gel human heads. (What, you thought he was a LOTR fan?). DH and I oohed over the animation software – DH naturally quizzing the tour-guide on the capabilities of the software (what do you expect of a control engineer with a bent for amateur photography?). Though I think he rather lost her when they started discussing what 3D printing facilities they had and how their robotics facilities worked. (There was a lovely window showing the prototyping workshop). J loved the giant Wotwot toys, and loved patting them, though we wouldn’t let her take the books (thankfully they were held on with string). She and C also loved the miniature train models, but she didn’t like the stuffed animal puppets. I also had a field-day discussing how certain fabric effects were created (textures on leather, colour dyes etc), and they had one of their costume designers working on a magnificent linen-silk faux-medieval dress with metal embroidery. I had lots of squee-moments discussing the fabric choices, and whether the material was raw silk, pure linen, or a combination. Lovely.
Some of the best times we had in NZ was meeting other families of HG+ children. Many months before, I put a request out on some of the forums I visit, asking if anyone in NZ wanted to meet. So on our tour, we were able to meet five families (almost six, but I stuffed up the times and we missed each other). C and J had a chance to play with kids just like them, and my DH and I got to meet other Mums and Dads who had been through the same things, some of whom I’d been chatting to online for a long time. I got to finally put faces to names, got to cuddle some adorable babies, and have real heart-to-hearts with some amazing people. And I’m sure, if only for that, we will be going back to NZ.
Well, this is it, the end of my little tour of NZ. It was an unforgettable experience. NZ really is an amazing, sometimes scary, and an almost always beautiful place.
Read the other parts of our campervan adventure:
Also don’t forget to check out the other Virtual Field Trips at GHF.