Middle Earth Meander
A long way
The South Pacific Islands of New Zealand are a long way from where northerners live. In fact, it is not that far from being directly on the opposite side of the planet from us here in Eastern Canada. Travelling to and visiting a place this far away requires some extra special prep; travel distances are long, and the investments of time and money to get there naturally encourages one to want to maximize the return from the effort.
Probably the biggest difficulty with organizing a large group trip to New Zealand is the "sign-on" process. Such a trip is a big commitment; something that takes a lot of decision-making time. To accommodate for this, we began the planning for this trip a full 18 months in advance, starting with dropping the idea at various social events or on hikes, then proceeding on to email exchanges and then some informal meetings. There were many interested in the idea of a trip to New Zealand, the verdant land of Hobbits and Middle Earth, and at one point I think we had a potential roster of nearly twenty interested adventurers.
As with all things, life intrudes. Our initially large group numbers fluctuated, then dropped, and by the time we had a "kickoff" barbeque in the fall of 2015, our group had firmed down to about ten or eleven participants. Still, quite a large number for such a big trip.
The most important question at our kickoff meeting was "when?". We had already come to the conclusion that a trip to such a far-flung location required three weeks. When, however, involved finding ways to maximize vacation days and to fit within each of our restrictions. With New Zealand being a summer hemisphere country, the desire was to visit during their summer, which meant the December to March timeframe. The most obvious period of time is over the Christmas / New Year's holiday, which greatly reduces the number of vacation days required. This was initially our leaning, but after doing some research, we learned that the combination of the holiday period and New Zealand's summer school break period made this time especially busy. Busy campgrounds, busy hotels, higher prices, crowded trails, crowded huts.
We chose instead a three-week stretch in February. Apparently a quieter part of the New Zealand summer, it also was reported to have a slightly better chance of sunny weather. With overall dates decided, we could start implementing our decisions. By the time Hallowe'en rolled around, we had booked our tickets and had arrived at our final group configuration: eight people - myself, Jennifer, Pu, Caroline, Andy, Andrea, Brian and Lori.
Over the remainder of the fall, we held several planning meetings and hammered out the specifics of our itinerary and various logistics. Although we shared the same general vision, it was important to set proper expectations and accommodate individual differences. After three such meetings, we arrived at a reasonably detailed itinerary (which, if you want to examine, is available here
As is to be expected on one of these sorts of trips, outdoor recreational activities formed a significant chunk of our plan. Hiking, cycling, kayaking, mountaineering - all of these had a spot somewhere in the itinerary. This meant that, for maximum enjoyment, it behooved us to ramp up our physical conditioning in advance of the trip. To that end, we embarked on a combination of hikes, cycle rides, and stair climbs (the stair climb - done in a local university's high-rise building - was a quick way to simulate the activity of hiking uphill with weight on your back).
I wanted to sample a bit of New Zealand's excellent mountaineering opportunities, and we fitted in plans for a single outing up a relatively easy objective in New Zealand's Southern Alps. Five of our group expressed interest in this objective, and to ensure that we were able to travel in glaciated terrain safely, we embarked on a program of mountaineering skills refreshment/training in the months and weeks leading up to the trip. The season inversion between the southern and northern hemispheres helped us out in this situation - as the trip dates approached, we were able to practice our snow and ice skills outside in Ottawa, where it was currently the depth of winter. A local sliding hill, complete with night lights, provided a good venue.
As you may already know, New Zealand is the land of Middle Earth - owing to the fact that the blockbuster Lord of the Rings movie series was entirely filmed and produced there. As a way to whet our appetites for our exploration of Tolkien's fantasy world, we got together before the trip to watch The Fellowship of the Ring - the first installment in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Researching Middle Earth
Finally, after more than a year of organizing and planning, the dates of our trip approached. Brian and Lori opted to extend their trip, electing to visit for nearly five weeks (versus 23 days for the rest of us). They extended their trip for six days on either side of our "core" dates (February 5th to the 28th).
So, six days before the 5th, I picked Brian and Lori up early on a cold winter morning and sent them off on their journey - the first wave of our little Canadian invasion of New Zealand.
For the rest of us, it was an impatient wait for nearly another week to pass. We passed the time doing a few more tower runs and getting all of our gear ready. With so many different outdoor disciplines on the agenda, there was quite a lot of stuff (well, at least for me) that needing prepping.
Over the course of the week, we began to get a trickle of beautiful photos from Brian and Lori, who had started to explore the Northland region of New Zealand, far at the northwestern tip of the North Island. The pictures showed a land of crashing surf, beautiful beaches, and semi-tropical coastline. Here's a small subset of them:
Finally, the 5th of February rolled around, and it was our turn to be off. Travelling to New Zealand from eastern North America is a long 14,000+ km journey; so, we arranged to make the journey more relaxing by incorporating a nice long stopover partway, in the city of Vancouver. Our plane from Ottawa arrived in the morning and our flight to New Zealand left in the evening, allowing us to spend the day wandering around downtown Vancouver, stretch our legs, and visit some friends.
Preparing to visit Vancouver
Although the day in Vancouver was somewhat rainy, it was still quite enjoyable. The Skytrain's Canada Line from the airport to downtown was cheap and fast; we met up with several friends over the course of the day, having lunch at a nice Japanese restaurant and then a warm afternoon coffee and pastry at a patisserie. Whisked back to the airport by the efficient Skytrain late in the afternoon, we were nicely refreshed and ready for the long 14+ hour flight to Auckland.
While waiting to board our Air New Zealand Beoing 777, we met Richard - a chatty Torontonian about to embark on a solo journey to New Zealand and Australia. Little did we know that this would not be our first encounter.
T7 to NZ
Fourteen hours is longer than any of us had been on an airplane in one go. Jenn and I opted to pay a little extra and take advantage of Air New Zealand's "Skycouch" product. The Skycouch consists of a windowside row of three seats that each have a lazy-boy style foot piece that rises up and locks into a horizontal position, providing an extension to the seat bottom, completly closing the gap to the next seat. In combination with a bit of extra seat pitch, the Skycouch allows two people to sleep lying down, albeit in a fetal position. Not being someone who has an easy time sleeping upright in an airplane seat, this sounded like a great idea.
Prepping for Middle Earth
We discovered that our Air New Zealand Boeing had a much superior IFE (In-flight entertainment) system to what we'd become accustumed to on our regular carriers. It sported a very large screen, a positive, low-lag touch interface, lots of interesting functionality and a very extensive movie collection. An inter-seat chat system allowed us all to keep in touch, and a multiplayer mode meant you could do more than play against a boring AI when trying out the system's games. Amusingly, the entertainment system had all of the Peter Jackson Tolkien movies available for viewing. Only on the official airline of Middle Earth!
Finally, after 30+ elapsed hours of travelling and having skipped an entire day (we left on the 5th and arrived on the 7th, due to crossing the international date line), we arrived in Auckland, New Zealand. My verdict on the Skycouch was that it worked - I was able to get six or seven hours of good, lie-down sleep.
The plan was to meet up with Brian and Lori, who had arranged to meet us at a nearby car rental outlet. First, though, we had to run the gauntlet that is New Zealand's foreign travel entry system.
At first, we had to run through the usual customs clearance - the kind of thing you usually need to do when arriving in a new country. After that, though, we had to go through a foreign substances check. New Zealand, being an isolated island nation, has concerns about the importation of pests, animals and diseases that are not native. What makes the situation even more acute here is that the natural flora and fauna is especially susceptible to outside threats.
To counter this threat in the face of huge numbers of foreign visitors, a very stringent inspection process was in place. We had to have our gear carefully inspected by immigration staff - especially so in our case, where we had hiking and camping gear. The soles of our boots and our tents were of special interest to them. In fact, they took our tent away from us and we only got it back after they had unpacked it and treated it with some sort of disinfectant in an isolated room.
Reunion and Vans
This extended inspection caused us to be a bit behind schedule, and we were running late for our rendez-vous with Brian and Lori. After quickly obtaining some mobile phone SIM cards, we snagged the shuttle to the Apex car rental outlet (where Brian and Lori were patiently waiting). Lori had thoughtfully made and packed sandwiches for all of us hungry travellers.
We set about organizing ourselves into our rental vehicles. Based on our group size and itinerary, we knew we needed two vehicles and a lot of space. To that end, we rented two of the largest minivans the car rental outfit offered - the Hyundai iMax. Not offered in North America, the iMax is an eight-passenger vehicle with a large amount of cargo space, even with a full load of passengers. They would serve us well in situations where we needed to split up unevenly or when we wanted to fit everyone into one vehicle.
Fully set up with the vans, we had one final task before setting out to explore New Zealand. We had to go back to the airport to pick up Pu, who had chosen a slightly different flight itinerary than the rest of us, and was arriving a couple of hours after we did. Fortunately, his processing through immigration and "foreign substances" control went better than it did for us, and shortly after we arrived back at the airport, he popped out into the warm February sunshine. In no time we had him and his luggage bundled into one of the vans, and off we went.