We arrived in Auckland after a very long flight from LA at 6am, however as this was the only day that we would be in Auckland we decided to dump our bags at the hostel and make the most of the (overcast) day we had there so after a quick pick me up coffee we head onto the visitor centre to pick up some information and head up to the Albert Park where we found a few interesting statues, I persisted with asking each statue who they were which everyone except Jo seems to find odd but there we go and then went into the local art gallery. They had an excellent exhibition by Rita Angus who is one of New Zealand's 'pioneering artists' according to the gallery. There was also a great deal of Maori art on display which was really interesting to see. We walked along to the sky tower and decided that due to the sky being so grey we would go along to view Auckland by night! The sight was really cool, Auckland is a lot larger than we had imagined it to be, it is according to the guides the 4th largest city in the form of land mass in the sothern hemisphere. The rest of the day was mainly spent running errands as we were starting on our connections trip the following day and trying to avoid the strange lodger that we were sharing our dorm with, an interesting English girl called Kerry who had been living in the hostel for 3 weeks as she had lost her passport, however as her story seemed to change each time we ran into her we were not sure that the story was 100% true....
Finally got the chance to have a lie in after running around for the previous 2 weeks as the connections trip picked us up at 1pm. I was so glad when one of the first things that our lovely tour leader Katie said was that Auckland isn't the real New Zealand and that there was so much better to come as neither Joey or I had been overly impressed with it, and she certainly wasn't wrong! Katie and Kevin (our lovely driver) asked us to all stand up and introduce ourselves to the group using the microphone which certainly helped to break the ice! Some of the group had already been on the tour for a few days up to the bay of islands but all of us newbie's slotted in nicely and everyone was really lovely. We head out of Auckland and onto our destination for the next few days Rotorua. The first night was one of the things that I had really been looking forward to and it didn't disappoint, we were to stay on a traditional Maori Marae or Maori home stay. The first thing that we had to do was to be welcomed onto the Marae in the traditional way with the women walking in front with the men at the sides and along the back to symbolize that we were coming in peace and that we were not a threat. We were then welcomed by the chief and had to sing a song to him, we chose to sing a (not entirely accurate I am sure) version of 'Heads, shoulders, knees and toes'.... in Maori, if nothing else it did cause amusement. We then had to touch noses and foreheads in the traditional way (Hongi) and we were then officially welcomed in and able to come and go as we pleased. After a short walk to the Okere Falls to see where some of the others were going while water rafting down the next day and a stop for a German beer, of all things, we then head back to the Marae for some traditional food and got the opportunity to ask our guides questions about their traditions and beliefs which was really interesting, I especially enjoyed learning about the carvings on their homes and their family values. That night we slept in an open plan area of their meeting house and after we got past the cold (!!) it turned out to be a good nights sleep! Such an amazing opportunity, how often in life do you get the opportunity to do these things?!
After a very cold and frosty start to the morning we head to Whakarewarewa Maori Village (no, I cannot pronounce it) where we had a guided tour and saw the natural springs and learnt about how the Maori people did, and still do, use their natural resources to their advantage. The earths crust there is so thin that you can feel the heat coming up from the ground and if you jump, you can feel the vibrations quite a distance away. We then got the opportunity to watch the Hakka, which is quite a sight to be seen up close and the guys got the majority of the men up from the audience to have a go which was pretty entertaining! In the afternoon Joey and I had opted out of the more enthusiastic options and decided to head along to 'Hell's Gate' to see a little more geothermal activity and have a mud bath and spa which was lovely and very relaxing, however it was slightly difficult to shake off the sulphur smell for a few days!! We then let our creative side out (irony) and made a few wood carvings symbolising Kiwi determination and the bond between mother and child that we were told would be fine for getting through Australian customs, more of that one later....
The next day we started on a very long journey to 'Windy' Wellington. The highlight of the drive was meant to be seeing 'mount doom' from Lord of the Rings, however due to enthusiastic weather patterns it couldn't quite be seen, we did however see Mt. Ruapehu, Tongarilo and Ngauruhoe, some active volcanoes and the mighty Haka Falls where enough water goes through every 3 seconds to fill an olympic swimming pool, which was all pretty impressive, apparently some people white water raft along there, madmen. We arrived in Wellington in the late afternoon and went out for a lovely Indian dinner as a group, then ladies night on Cocktails whilst bowling and a quite a few bar's as we were trying to find somewhere that was busy on a Tuesday! The following day we visited 'Te Papa' or our place national museum which is pretty cool as its all very interactive. We then head along to the port to catch the inter islander ferry over to the south island. The crossing was pretty calm which was handy and we even got to see a few dolphins swimming alongside the ferry which was lovely. The sights along the Cook Strait were breathtaking, I managed to get a few good shots from outside on the very very cold and windy deck! Burrr! After arriving at Picton we head towards our next stop, Nelson, where we were to spend two nights. Goodbye North Island!