To make up for the length of the previous post, this one will be much shorter – helped by the fact that I was not allowed to take pictures on the tour.  Tour of what, you say?  We’re visiting the Waitomo Caves.  Now, I’m not a big fan of caves anymore.  I’ve done some really stupid things exploring caves as a youth, luckily surviving, and I’ve seen some major caves later in life, and for me there’s a certain sameness to them now.  Is this Old Fartdom happening?  Does one get increasingly jaded in life as one “sees it all”?   Boy I hope not, but let’s keep an eye on this attitude.  Anyway, we are not here to see the caves but to see the glowworms.  We will do that by going on a boat ride on an underground river.

The Waitomo area is limestone, the weather rainy.  Whole streams disappear down funnel-shaped sinkholes.  The rocks are often fluted.  Caves abound, as do tour companies helping you explore them.  Some tours look really cool, such as one involving an abseil (“to rope down”) 300 feet down a yawning, spectacular vertical-sided fern-draped pothole (cave exploring follows).  Others are a wet-suit-clad inner tube ride through an underground river and over small waterfalls.   We’re doing the short 45 min tour that doesn’t allow for pictures; we’re taking it because Ginger is not feeling her best and the longer (and more Waitomo Cave exitexpensive) trips that allow photos are quite a bit longer, 3+ hours.  And really, in all cases the major attraction of these tours is the glowworms, which we’ll get.  We start by walking into a cave, then hopping in a boat for a short drift through the glowworm region.  Cave exit is shown in the picture (which I’m allowed to take).

Glowworms exist throughout NZ, mostly in caves (where we can see them in daytime).  Glowworms, in the adult form, look like large mosquitos; they live for  3 days, not eating but having lots and lots of sex, finally dying of exhaustion but with big glowworm threadssmiles.  The female multi-tasks and finds time to lay eggs during the orgies, the eggs hatch, and the small 3mm larvae attach themselves to the cave roof.  They then lower 20-30 basically invisible mucus-and-silk threads (like fishing lines – more later).  The picture to the left shows them, illuminated from the side.  How did I take this photo? Alas, I took it directly from the brochure, but it might as well be my “live” picture.  It looks like this, folks!  Without side lighting, however, they are invisible.  Caves, you may know, are dark.  Normally.  But glowwormsglowworms are bioluminescent, producing a mostly blue, greenish-tinged glow.  When your eyes adjust to the dark, there they are, everywhere, shining like blue stars.  Pretty cool.  The brochure picture to the left gives you the idea of what you would see, but it is much better in the flesh in the cave with the shining stars just a few feet over your head.  So what is the story here?  The bioluminescence attracts flying insects in the dark cave.  They encounter the hanging mucus threads and get stuck.  The larvae pulls up the line, eats the ensnared prey, and drops down another line.  The larvae grow from a few mm to the size and shape of a matchstick, so this process works pretty well.  It’s scary out there, folks!  It’s The Blob of the insect world (old SF movie to you newbies).  But for us, these Blue Meanies are just really, really fairy-like magical.  Sorry I don’t have better pictures to show you, but it probably would have been hard to capture them without a tripod.

To Inhabit a Hobbit Hole, or Not?

That was the question.  Not as momentous as “To be, or not  …”, but still, it’s $75 a pop for a 1.5 hr tour of the Hobbit movie set, and c’mon, is this a made-up tourist thing or what?  And we’re guarding our sheckles in this expensive country.  So we said “No”, and then we thought – “We’re this close?  Would our inner kids ever forgive us?”  So here we are, not at all sure about our decision as a very rickety 1950’s repainted and frequently rehabbed school bus on its last legs lumbers and wheezes up, gears grinding, to take us to Hobbiton from the Shire’s Rest Cafe-and-souvenir-shop (just after a pouring rain ….).  Hobbiton is the set left behind after filming the first Hobbit film.  The Lord of the Rings filming built the place, but that Shire was made of plywood and styrofoam, meant to be removed.  However, in the process of tearing it out the rains came and stopped the work, and then the locals starting showing up to see the location, and thus was born a tourist industry.  For the first installment of the Hobbit, the Shire was rebuilt with an incredible (can I say maniacal?) attention to detail, and here it stands, expanded in fact for the 2nd Hobbit installment (but we’ll get to that).

The beautiful area was and is a very large sheep farm, chosen by Peter Jackson from

The sheep farm

View of the area from Shire’s Rest.

an aerial search of this idyllic hilly land to correspond with Tolkien’s description.  I’d like to show you an overview of the Shire, but the bus doesn’t stop, the road is bumpy, and the bus has no springs.  Staying in the seat is hard enough, much less shooting a picture, and the view comes and goes.  The best I can do is take a picture of the schematic on their brochure, so there it is in all its glory.  Sigh.  A real picture would have been cool.  DSC_0046

Anyway, back to the choice of the Hobbiton site; the existing lake already had a “party tree” in front of it, and importantly, there were no roads, buildings or electrical lines to mar the view.  Peter Jackson got the NZ government to volunteer the NZ Army to spend 9 months building the road and site.  At its peak, 400 people were on site for the filming of the few minutes of the Shire in the Lord of the Rings series.

On the bus our guide tells us we have to stay with him at all times and to keep on the trail that winds past many of the Hobbit houses.  So there are real limits to picture taking – particularly Hilltop Tree (fake)overviews!  I will not be able to walk back up this road, for instance.  Groan!  And we paid how much money?  And then we’re there, and the doubts melt away, because it’s fabulous.  Peter Jackson’s attention to detail is stunning.  Perhaps this is a requirement for movie directors?  The budget for this movie was astronomical, yet Jackson managed to overspend by quite a few million (the movie,  of course, was in the black after opening day, so there weren’t many complaints).  As an example of Jackson’s approach, he needed an oak tree on top of Bilbo’s house (Bag End) at the top of the Shire, so he found the one he wanted elsewhere, had it cut down, the branches numbered and cut off, and transported and re-assembled at Bag End.  He then imported artificial leaves from Taiwan and had them individually wired onto the dead tree.  And there it is today, unchanged, as shown in the picture.  Similarly, Jackson creates a small orchard of plum trees since Tolkien writes of a child under a tree eating plums with pits piled up; but the tree shapes are all wrong to Jackson, so he has them pulled out and “Hobbit-like” apple and pear trees planted.  However, with the shooting sufficiently delayed in spring, the trees are leafing out and they are not plum leaves.  Well, that won’t do, will it?  So for filming he Lichenrepeats his tree trick, plucking the leaves off an apple tree and wiring plum leaves from Japan in their place.  I can roll my eyes at this perfectionist thing, but it works; all this detail makes Hobbiton magical, and almost alive.  Jackson had to make the place look like it had been around a while, so the wood was artificially aged, the fences sprayed with artificial “lichen” (some substance mixed with wood chips), etc.  And it is all wonderful.

I took a LOT of pictures of this exquisite place, and I don’t really want to choose among them, so I will simply show you most of the bazillion pictures I took.  Sorry about that, you do the work!  Will this post be long?  “You betcha”, as a famous lady once said.  To help readers who might be only peripherally interested in this topic, I have arranged this blog in three parts.  There is a looooonng section on the Hobbit houses, a short segment on the upcoming Hobbit sequel out next month, and then a section on the delightful Green Dragon Inn.


There are 42 hobbit-hole facades on the hillside, of different sizes for filming, and they are charming.   I’m not going to show all 42 (alas, I didn’t get to see them all!), but I will show many (and I think you will want even more).  Before I do that, let me show you some overall pictures of the Shire; although I’m in the Shire and it’s in my face, it’s impossible to get more than pieces of it.  The first one is looking up from near the bottom, the second is looking down from near Bag End.  Alas, the snippets don’t really capture the magical feeling of the place.

The next picture is another piece of the Shire, near the “river” (lake); the last near the entrance to the Shire marking the directions of three of the four Farthings (great name, that).

We are enthralled by this place because of the detail.  It is the essence of quaint and cute!  The place is alive!  Hobbits live!  It convincingly looks like all the Hobbits have left for a meeting or something, and will be right back.  One expects to see the tobacco pipes left behind to be still smoking.  As an example, take this Hobbit house: The broom, the flower pots, the coat on the bench, the rug airing out on the fence ….

Add the scale, which makes it quite adorable.

Here’s another one, with us nearby for perspective.  It looks inviting, sure enough, but the pull-away view shows all the props that make the place seem so real.

The emphasis on detail is everywhere: dormer windows poking up, chimneys with soot on them, laundry on the line.

Or this example, with the carpenter’s (woodworker’s?) house and tools, and next door the wood shed.

OK, this last example.  Carving on the door frame, items showing through the window, potted plants on the ground.  And then step back and see the whole picture of this house – laundry on the line, the basket of washed clothes just below, a water bucket by the fence ….  At whatever distance you view the place, it is captivatingly homey and charming.

Just to play, I decide to hide in the house below and see if Ginger can find me.  Well, it wasn’t so hard to do; the Hobbit holes only go back a few feet before they end, just enough to very comfortably store stuff (remember to click for the slideshow).

I hope you’re ready to see more Hobbit houses, because here they come. These are paired images of 3 houses.

This is a study of one house:

A couple more pairs:



Getting tired of this?  A last set …..

What you haven’t seen in all this is Bilbo’s house, Bag End.  That’s because, irritatingly, it has been pre-empted by a publicity shot for the upcoming Hobbit sequel and the area is blocked by people and cameras.  Below are three shots, one glimpsing the interior of Bag End (which actually has a small section of finished interior, which is visible when Bilbo meets Gandalf at the door).  The other pictures show the side of the house (we weren’t allowed any closer).


So I’m grumpy because we aren’t going to see the interior of Bag End, and I’m talking to one of the crew milling about, and she says “Yes, when we were filming The Hobbit….”  Hmm.  So this is no pick-up crew.  The filming is for publicity of the Hobbit/Smaug film (you need marketing for THAT film?) here in NZ (although the guide tells Ginger it’s for an ad for Air New Zealand), and there are 3 actors in costume, pretty much hiding away inside Bag End.  Apparently there is a lot of secrecy around the new Hobbit film that I am unaware of, and my camera is eyed suspiciously, and we are not invited anywhere near Bag End.  Below are the shots I get.

We leave (we’re the last tour of the day), and the filming crew move down for a shot as we Publicity for Smaugdepart, so I hightail it back to sneak in my own picture of the actress, who I guess will be in the Smaug film?  We’ll see.  Actually, before getting to Bag End our guide pointed to a couple Hobbit Houses off to the side that he will not take us to, since they were just recently built for the Smaug sequel and Peter Jackson doesn’t want people to see them until after the film (why?).  I take pictures with the telephoto lens.  They should be in the Smaug movie; I’ll look for them (and say I was there!  Sort of).


Green Dragon SignThe Green Dragon – and the mill and bridge – were rebuilt, exactly replicating the first temporary structures.  This is a functional restaurant and bar, catering only to the tourists.  They serve specially brewed (just for  them!) ales and ciders, as well as “Hobbit fayre” like beef-and-ale pie or cold-pork pie.  And a boatload of atmosphere!  Below are overviews, and as you can see, this is one big inn!

So – to the Dragon!  And let us not forget the cute mill.

Below is the Green Dragon exterior – too big to get it in one image!  It is impressive.

Again, up close there is a lot of detail to see, such as the carving on these two different bays:

Inside partakingAs charming as the outside is, thatch roof and all, the inside is even better.  It successfully makes you feel like a Hobbit yourself, with its circular windows and doors.  Isn’t that a Ginger Hobbit there, partaking?  Everywhere inside are huge  (huge and real!) beams and cross timbers, all smooth and polished.  The subdued lighting gives the impression there are candles behind the glass.  The pictures below don’t quite capture the ambiance, but you’ll get the idea:

Although the place is huge and has some larger rooms, it is also nicely broken up into smaller, cozy corners, as shown:

Details - coatsThe attention to detail is also present inside, evident in things like hanging jackets and (Hobbit) portraits on the walls. Details

And let’s not forget the Inn’s namesake Green Dragon: It’s truly gorgeous.

Finally (were you despairing?), the inn’s food and drink.  Serving the trapped tourists at the end of the tour (you get a free drink), what would you expect for prices and quality?

We had low expectations, but the prices looked good, so why not?   Besides, it was an excuse for savoring the interior (and the fireplace).  We ordered beef and ale pies.  I had an ale, Ginger the cider.  The pies were small, to be sure, but extremely good, as were the drinks.  Surprise!!  We would happily have had more, but the day was over and the bus was leaving.  It was indeed a delight to almost believe in the existence of Hobbits for awhile, and to visit the Shire.

Piha Hike

We’re off to see a waterfall.  It’s a nice day, not raining for a change.  The trail, like others before, is pretty amazing.  As for instance, the overhead shot here of fern tree “umbrellas”.  Fern UmbrellasI note to Ginger that it feels like we have been shanghied into a Star Trek episode and here we are, beamed down on this wild planet, and there are probably dinosaurs around the corner.  She says, no, it’s more like “Honey I Shrunk the Kids”.  Well, I don’t remember seeing that movie, but I get her point.

Below are pictures of the trail.  Not bad.

FlowerThe flowers are interesting as well, such as this one.  Whooo boy, those are stamens!  Making a statement!

I’ll end with the waterfall.  Not spectacular, but definitely pretty.  Kauri were logged here years ago, there are some old pictures.  The loggers built a dam near the top of this waterfall to float the kauri trunks and then flush them down this river – over this waterfall! – to the shore.  Turns out the logs were so dinged up from the fall that they had to find another way.   Duh!

NZ Birds, Birds, Birds

If you aren’t very interested in our fine-feathered dinosaurs, you might want to skip this post, which is mostly just a big dump of NZ bird pictures.

New Zealand was basically a bird sanctuary during most of its existence.  Other than a couple types of bat, it had no mammals of any kind, and therefore no predators of birds.  Birds thus evolved in strange ways, such as several flightless types like the moa, an ostrich-sized bird now extinct.  When mankind arrived, bringing big appetites as well as dogs and rats, the birds took it on the chin (I love metaphors!); particularly the flightless big birds.  Well, other birds have since arrived (including the house sparrow, darn it), but there is a huge effort here in NZ to protect the native birds from predators (which are still very limited in type: feral cats, mice, rats, stoats, wild pigs, possums, ferrets).  And except for privately owned dogs and cats, there is quite a strong eradication program for those mammals.  Dogs are popular here, but interestingly, in many places they are simply not allowed to run free.  Many parks/forests have fences and metal gates to keep dogs out.  If you take a dog into the forest, he has to be on a leash.  So I guess you’d have to say that birds still rule, here.

We took a guided tour to Tiritiri Matangi, a predator-free island.  The island had been farmed for a century before being abandoned, and was essentially devoid of trees.  In a textbook example of citizens working with the government, the island was planted with a quarter-million native trees (read – trees producing food for birds), mostly by volunteers, with explicit instructions on how to do it to get a “real” random forest.  Today it is solid forest indeed, and the songs of birds everywhere is impressive.  Below are some shots from the island.  As you can see from the first picture, we’re still close to Auckland.

I hoped to see a Takahe, a turkey-sized flightless bird named from fossil bones and Takahethought to be extinct until discovered in 1948.  Today there are 150 of them still living, 7 on this island.  From their pictures, they look spectacular.  And on arrival, our guide hears one calling in the forest near the wharf, unusual for them.  Whooppeee!  And there are signs around saying “Please do not feed the Takahe”, another good sign.  Unfortunately it’s a pretty large group of visitors today, the ferry being cancelled the day before due to rough seas and today a (Grayhound-sized) bus of Kiwis from Whangarei arriving in the nick of time (groan).  There are plenty of guides, and our group with guide is only about 10 people, but the groups are everywhere walking around the paths making noise.  Not such a good sign.  We do see a Kokako, a pigeon-sized bird that is rare.  Alas, no Takahe show up for us.

Below are the bird pictures from our month in NZ.  Some I have included more than once, if I thought they offered something extra.  The Tui, for instance, are pretty fantastic.  These birds are everywhere in the woods, a large and aggressive bird almost the size of a magpie.  They are quite pretty, with two white balls at their throats, a shawl-like patch of feathers on their shoulder, and black going to blue/green iridescent feathers everywhere else.  What is really cool is their call(s).  They have two voice boxes (really!), and their call is something you’ve never heard before.  It reminds me of glass breaking in the most melodic way imaginable; it’s quite beautiful.  Ginger says my descriptor is all wrong, it is instead unbird-like otherworldly beautiful (and sometimes ending with a caw-like high-frequency gate creak that breaks the spell).  OK, there you have it.  Now you know what they sound like.  They are also incredible mimics, and seem to be able to duplicate the calls of other birds well enough to confuse the guides.  Below the bird pictures.

That’s if for the birds!


We’re off to see the stormy west coast again, but catch a sunset this time.  The NZ west coast is truly wild along its entire length; the term is “tempestuous shores”.  There are lots of signs saying to swim at only certain spots, and to be careful that waves don’t come over the boulder and wash you off.  Yeah, sure, until you stand on a boulder admiring the view and suddenly the 20th or so wave comes in and sends you scurrying for your life!  Rip CurrentThe warnings are not idle. If you look at this picture, you’ll see a wave right-center coming at you that’s just about to crest.  However, click on this image to make it bigger, and if you look to the left of that cresting wave, you’ll see a smaller one about to crest at an angle 90 degrees from the first!  The water swirls and crashes and tries to suck the sand away.  And yet the beaches often have surfers hard at work (in their wet suits), making you wish you could do that too.

I’ve booked us into a lodge almost on the beach – a 2 minute walk.  The web site looks great, and my NZ guidebook says “suite with big deck, French doors and quality furnishings and bedding.  $220/night. ” Well, the price was accurate.  The furniture is 1950’s, the kitchen pots and pans are older, the bathroom is away downstairs along with the shower that has a trickle of hot water, and there’s not much heat down there.   Message to self: stiffen upper lip.

However, the Piha beach is gorgeous, and I am going to bombard you with photos from this place.  First, a LAST look at Northland scenery.  In your mind you should join these two images to get a better feel for the view.

Now a look at where we are.  We’re at the top of a hill (visitor center; we arrived 5 minutes

too late, but I’ve stopped and so need to take a picture).  Looking east (left picture), Auckland is in the distance (the beach we’re heading to is a popular weekend getaway).  Then turn 180 in the direction of the beach, and you see primeval forest.

I can’t help but take advantage of some tourist attractions, so here are the pictures.  Isn’t the picture on the left a pretty one?  The Maori carving on the right shows tattoos in some of the most unlikely places ….

OK, time to get serious.  After navigating narrow twisty roads going down, Piha appears.

It’s pretty.  I’m showing you this beach over several days from several heights.  Although Piha is a town, there are no stores and there are no gas stations (there is one restaurant of sorts).  The road to Piha does not subsequently link with any of the other towns along the shore.  It’s there and back.  If you want to buy anything, you go back up the twisty narrow road and then quite a ways further to civilization, at least an hour away.  But who wants to go back to civilization with these views?  The beach is a black sand beach, which is kinda Black sand beachcool, but I wonder about it’s allure under a hot sun.  In my experience even white sand can get pretty ouchy.  Still, it’s gorgeous.

Of course, being on the west side, there are sunsets over the ocean.  We didn’t get a great sunset, but a couple weren’t too bad.  Let me show you one of these.  You do know to click on one of the images for the show, correct?

Finally, a quick retrospective of the other (lesser) sunset, as the light fades.  Please click.

Well, it was more red than that, but I won’t complain.

Let me leave you with one last picture of what one should be doing Chillin'in this beautiful country, and what the Kiwi seem to think they should be doing rather than “getting ahead” or “making more”.  We call them “laid back”. They seem to think enough is all they need.  We’d probably be opening up a gas station on the corner … hey, with a mini-mart, a two-fer.  Big sign.  Make a killing, no competition ….  Be open 8 – 8.  Retire at 70 and … get a place on a beach like this ….  Are we missing something here?

Gannet Colony, Muriwai

Gannets are interesting birds.  They normally breed on islands, but there are a few places Gannet In Flight where they nest on the mainland instead, and return every year.  Muriwai is one of those places; a place of thundering surf, cliffs, and howling wind.  When we were there, we had jackets zipped and were leaning into the gale off the Tasman, cold as could be.  The birds, instead, looked like they were sunning themselves on a beach, happy as a lark.  Um – wrong metaphor.

The pictures below show you this Muriwai coast.  Part of that wave action is due to the wind, let me tell you. The churn is impressive.

Now let me show you where the gannets nest.  Pretty picturesque, eh?  They’re on 3 separate flat areas at the edge of cliffs (there are two separate cliffs in the first picture, a

third in the second).  Each is a separate cliff.  There is also some spillage of nests up the side of the headland in the second picture, not shown.  Probably from overcrowding, or maybe the nests were cheaper out there.

Let me digress and regale you with some gannet lore.  They catch fish by diving into the sea and pursuing their prey underwater.  They can hit the water at a speed of 60 mph (Ouch for the bird!  And for the poor fish, it must seem like you’re being chased by a bird in a porsche).  When juvenile birds get kicked out of the nest, it’s a one-shot jump off the cliff.  Once airborne, the young gannets leave the colony and cross the Tasman Sea to Australia (about 1500 miles), no one knows why.  Two years later, they return for good to secure a nest site at the same colony, home.

OK, back to my story.  As you can see from the images above, gannet nests are very close together, so landing (in high winds!) is an air traffic controller’s worst nightmare.  Landing birds have to glide over the raised beaks of their neighbors – so getting it wrong is a bad idea (we watched an interesting “whoops”).  These are big birds with a wingspan of six feet, landing on something like two square feet of open space, and their mastery of the onshore updrafts (gales?) is impressive (er – most of the time).  We did note that it’s a

convivial group down there, as shown above.

As mentioned, we watched some take-offs and landings for awhile (a take-off means spreading your wings, and the wind lifts you up…).  One landing went awry, and the bird did this ignominious kerplop summersault face plant.  Sorry I missed a picture of that!  Expecting some Bronx cheers from the neighbors, we were surprised at zero reaction.  The bird gets up unruffled and steps over to a nearby bird, and they proceed to smooch and snuggle!  I can imagine her saying “Oh honey, that landing was soooo much better than the last”.  I’m sure that’s what Ginger would have said.  Pictures of the “Honey I’m home” event below.

Well, all for now.  We’re off tomorrow to one of those predator-free islands to see (hopefully) some rare birds.  Next post maybe I’ll show you some bird pictures?


Kiwi House

Kiwis are the iconic bird of NZ, but bordering on extinction.  These flightless, nocturnal birds occupied a mammal niche here in NZ, and then mammals got introduced – mice, rats, stoats, dogs.  Signs say one dog killed 150 kiwi in one night; apparently a kiwi smells like chocolate to a dog.  Now there is an enormous effort within NZ to preserve these (and other) threatened birds (and lizards).

We wanted to see a kiwi, and so went to a Kiwi House (and museum).  There are a lot of these houses around NZ, part of the breeding program.  The houses switch lighting by 12 hours, so the confused animals think daytime is nighttime, and we can see them (maybe).  Our bad luck, the female had been sent for release and a new young one had just arrived and was experiencing jet lag; the male’s territory was cut in half, and he was hiding.  We came back another time and another day, and fared no better.  We did see the resident Morepork (owl).  Below are pictures, including my shot of the kiwi (or rather his beak, poking from his lair).

Stuffed KiwiWe’ll visit more of these houses, because these birds are ‘way too cute!  A stuffed kiwi is shown here (from the  museum), along with the single egg the female lays.  She lays a single egg for obvious reasons.  Ouch!

The museum had a number of interesting Maori artifacts that I’ll show off.  The first is a “Mere”, a Maori club typically made from NZ jade called “greenstone”.  It’s basically in the shape of a flattened tear drop, with sharp edges.  It’s about a foot long; hand-to-hand combat are us!  Mere must have been very popular, because they are in many (most?) of the Maori carvings.  Then there is a Maori powder horn, a purse made of flax, an instrument used for tattooing (the cutting part made of bone), and a cloak – a flax garment with feathers woven into it.

These are basically Stone Age people doing all their cutting with jade (sometimes obsidian), but they did have talent!