All our New Zealand trip souvenirs going up in smoke – that was running through my mind as the fire alarm bonged throughout my apartment building, during the siesta hours. Trying to make a mental list of the bare minimum things to stuff in my pockets, I blundered about, while my head was still stuffed up from a cold (an unintentional gift picked up in the last phase of the vacation) and a robotic voice insisted “evacuate” . Peeking the bedroom window onto the terrace below, I saw individuals running for the front entrance, and my pace picked up a bit. Passport, wallet, keys, glasses, cell phone, spouse… We’ll get back to the things I forgot, later.
In my travels, I have had a few encounters with fire alarms, all but the last involving lackadaisical curiosity more than any intentional urgency, which surprisingly is contrary to my upbringing in the Navy on a submarine, where everything (even drills) is treated with the utmost sense of realism and urgency. Perhaps I have gotten soft, until last year. It was at a hotel in Houston, up on the eighth floor, an otherwise uneventful (yawn) training conference, when I was awakened at 5am by what my brain told me was a crude prank, but since the alarm didn’t turn off in 2 minutes, I was forced to throw off the covers and go to the door. Now, if you paid attention in fifth grade to Fire Marshall Bill, when I say this – nothing jolts you awake like feeling a warm doorknob. Step two: get down on all fours, crack open the door. To see and feel smoke wafting from the hallway in brings one to an entirely new interpretation of the phrase “sh** just got real.” The final straw was running to the window as a fire engine pulls to a stop, like a small toy, on the street far below. So as to not mislead everybody in what turned out to be a very self-reflective event, involving not remembering which way were the fire stairs (those exit signs are useless – couldn’t see two feet), it was just a steam pipe rupture.
So, we have just gotten back from a marvelous six-day vacation to New Zealand, over the long Easter weekend. It was conveniently quiet in the office because a lot of folks in Australia take some time off because of the Anzac Day holiday the following week. Round-trip flights on Qantas and Virgin were about $800 per person, but we knocked off $200 by taking the red-eye over, which also eliminated an extra hotel night. The tour was a bit more per person, and we decided to upgrade on the hotels, which was a gamble that really paid off. Yes, the hotels and hallways and rooms were nicer, but their LOCATION was more conducive to nightly activities in town. In hindsight, I would also splurge on the airfare in order to get better rested up – these tour groups keep you very busy. I found a five-day booking on Viator with a company called “GreatSights” that nicely covered the highlights of the North Island: Waitomo glow worm caves, Rotorua thermal springs and sulphur lake and the Pohutu geyser, Cape Reinga and the kahika tree, driving the bus on the hard-packed sand of the 90-Mile Beach and boogie-boarding hundreds of feet down the dunes, cruising the Bay of Islands and going to the Hole in the Rock and some great dolphin sightings, seeing huge ancient kauri trees in the rainforests, a working farm with sheep and herding dogs, Hobbiton, and learning about the Maori tribal culture. Another five days (if you have them) could be spent on the South Island, where I really wanted to see the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers – the glaciers on the North Island are on Mount Ruapehu, where the tour bus driver didn’t want to take me, since it’s an active volcano.
I have turned into a bit of a nature buff, so getting a chance to see a real kiwi bird (endangered, nocturnal) and the agathis australis kauri trees (some of which are one thousand years old, and the largest in NZ – the species dates back to the Jurassic period) was as precious as sightseeing in Auckland and the pretty coastal towns that dot the coasts and Bay of Plenty. We also got some close-ups with dolphins and many of the bird varieties. The glow worms were fascinating – I’ve been to Luray Caverns and seen some colorful stalactites. But, this tour was unique in that, once down deep in the cave, you climb into a little boat and get pulled along via overhead rope in pitch-black until your eyes get adjusted and you see these little glowing dots of light over your head – little larva in different sizes and colors, hoping to attract insects brought by air currents into their strands of webbing. You can’t take photos or video, so they do the cheesy but endearing green-screen so you have something of a memory.
Logistically, the NZ dollar is about the same as the Australian dollar, about 70 US cents right now. Food and drink are reasonably priced, and people are very friendly – like Australia, you generally pay first and they bring it to your table, and tipping is minimal. We probably covered 800km in tour busses in the 5 days, but they were roomy and comfortable, some full and some only half, and the drivers were generally a hoot, providing color and documentary between sights. I’ve never driven on a beach before, much less in a 14-ton tour bus, and got a little startle when he headed INTO the surf at one point.
I read the Hobbit when I was a kid, but I don’t recall digesting the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I also don’t care for those kind of movies too much – not enough intrigue, too much hand-to-hand combat. But the scenery, in my mind and in person at Hobbiton, is fantastic. Stacey really enjoyed it, being familiar with the movie scenes – for me, it was a good chance to get some ideas on what kind of playhouse to build the grandkids someday.
For souvenirs, I got a block of preserved kauri wood (I’ll carve some kind of desk ornament later), a little statue kiwi made out of eucalyptus, some postcards, a nice shirt, and some mud kits from the thermal pools at Rotorua (just add hot water, apply to face). It would have been unfortunate to have lost those things, seeing as a trip to New Zealand shouldn’t be a once-in-a-lifetime event, but probably often is. It would have been really unfortunate not to spend a bit of time and money (ok, a lot of money) to experience kiwi land, while we happen to be in Australia. Part of the reason I’m doing this blog is to capture some good memories, reflect on our good fortune at being able to do this travel, and provide some information to others that may want to share these experiences as well. Up until now, I’ve been pretty caught up with work and routine, going through the motions, walking down the hallway of life, banking equity, thinking that we’d have plenty of time to tour, cruise, and vacation later, after retirement. But not if you don’t know where the fire stairs are…
P.S. It seems I scared a few folks with that first line – we are fine, and no damage. The fire department determined that it was something electrical in the next tower over – the tenants weren’t home, but a neighbor pulled the alarm. Better yet, we have just about gotten over the post-travel sniffles, and are looking forward to a lunch cruise on the lake today, and some dinner from the farmer’s market.