Weta Cave, Wellington

Weta Cave is a small shop occupying a corner of Weta Workshop, the company that makes weapons, armor, face (or foot) masks for dwarfs or trolls or Hobbits, as well as scaled city models for the movie industry – in particular, for directors with big budgets like James Cameron or Peter Jackson (Peter helped expand the company).  Think King Kong, Avatar, Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Narnia, District 9.  They will make, say, a metal helmet in all its glory for the close-ups, and a thousand copies in plastic for the armies, and make them all look a little used, dinged and smudged.  Their attention to detail is impressive indeed, as are the imaginative thoughts behind, say, the look of weapons in the future or believable elvish design.  Not to mention monster creation.  They can in fact create anything, from Ginger vs Trollfine jewelry, costuming or creature suits to large-scale tank or other (working) vehicles.  Actually, making these items is just a small part of what they do; in addition to employing a blacksmith and swordsmith and sculptor and painter and mold maker, they in particular employ programmers and computer artists to directly partner with the film director to bring his vision to life, including conceptual design and inventing the technology needed to pull it off.  They’ve expanded into many areas, including creating their own animated children’s tv programs.

They are sufficiently successful that Weta Cave is on the tourist agenda, probably largely due to the Peter Jackson movies and the big interest in Hobbits and Rings.  Weta Cave is free admission – for a reason: all those very realistic plastic weapons and helmets used Ron vs Trollin the movies?  Well, those are for sale  … along with very detailed miniature figures downsized from larger models.  Would you like to own an exact, detailed, shiny replica of Sting?  A pitted, corroded Orc sword like the one used in the movie?

I can take pictures in Weta Cave, but pictures are not allowed in the new pay-a-fee tour of  the “behind the scenes” Weta Workshop, since there is new-to-the-world secret stuff being created there.  We jump at the chance to see the Workshop in action.   As it turns out, it is a very limited tour!  We was had!  It’s one relatively small room divided in the middle, and we walk around the periphery … mind you, the Workshop we’re supposedly touring is 65,000 square feet ….  This one room is crammed with stuff, and the (45 min) tour moves too fast to see it all very well, but there are some killer displays of monsters and weapons and such from previous movies, and a discussion of how to paint things to look old and used, or to look like bronze or silver.  We get to see how weapons are cut out by viewing through a glass wall the (computer controlled) robotic milling machine slowly going through its paces and staffed by one person, but that’s pretty old technology, really.  I ask about 3-D printing, and the answer is that it doesn’t have good enough resolution but they are studying it.  We see a few life-size statues of creatures that no one else has seen outside the tour, pretty fantastic one-off’s done for the fun of it – and we talk to the artist making them.  So our tour of the Workshop has encountered one room, one milling machine, one painter (our guide), and the sculptor.  It has been interesting, but it’s a far cry from a real tour of this very creative cutting-edge Company.

OK, enough griping (did I really expect to see someone hunched over a computer designing some movie mogul’s future new monster?  A walk-through of workshops and sets?  An other-worldly city being put together?  Yep!  Sigh.  So goes Hope.).

Troll FaceLet me show you what they have let me take pictures of in the Cave/sales shop.  There are 3 trolls outside, 2 of them shown above.  There is impressive detail incorporated in these guys, which Weta is famous for; for instance, the hair on the troll’s face (and these monsters live outside in the weather!).   The Cave inside is dominated by Lord of the Rings/Hobbit exhibits, which is OK by me.  I’ll start by showing some of the weapons.

The helmets are very cool.  I particularly like the “King of the Dead” helmet, battle-scarred and very authentically old looking.

There are two original armor costumes on display that were made expressly for the Lord of the Rings sagas (at some expense!) that never made it into the film.  Again, the detail of apparent age and the allowances for limb movement are impressive.

There are a lot of miniature Lord of the Rings/Hobbit statues for sale, all with the Weta fetish for detail.  I take pictures of just a few.

We must not forget Hobbit feet.

There are also a few life-size statues that are quite impressive, such as Gollum.

A few others: Gandalf, elf king, orc.

Lutz, leader of the orcs;  he is about 8 feet tall and very impressive indeed!

This last cute statue is not in the Weta Cave but in a movie theater nearby, the art deco Roxy  that has connections to Weta.  Notice the small green plants growing on his dirty clothes and feet.

Fortress of SauronThe final Lord of the Rings/Hobbit display is a scale model of the fortress of Sauron.

Since Weta has done more movies than Lord of the Rings, there are of course other displays, such as the Faun weapons from Narnia, shown on the left, and weapons from Avatar, shown on the right.

There are also weapons and creatures from District 9, shown below.

There are other displays, such as from the animated film TinTin, and some I don’t recognize that are quite intriguing and very well done, as shown below.

That’s it from the Weta Cave.  Next post will be on the city of Wellington.

Rotorua – Geothermal Wonderland

The main reason tourists flock to Rotorua is to experience the otherworldly nature of the reality of this world.  Here in Rotorua one can glimpse the inhospitable forces that lie under our feet, Moving Tectonicsthe monster that lurks under the bed.  Remember me telling you that Auckland was built on top of 50 old volcanoes?  There are a bunch of volcanoes in NZ, picturesquely so, like a Mt. Fuji look-alike (Mt. Egmont) here on the North Island (it’s off to the side and we’ll visit it another day).   Rotorua is near the middle where a band of tectonic plate intersections cross the island.  The world has been impacted by this region in the past; the picture on the left below shows NZ’s largest lake, Lake Taupo, which is over 350 square miles in size and was once a volcano.  When it blew in 186 AD, it released more ash and debris than Krakatoa and Mt. St. Helens combined – and then multiplied by ten (!!).  The Chinese noted a blackening of the sky, and the Romans recorded that the heavens turned blood-red.  Need I point out that neither of those countries is even remotely close to NZ?  The picture on the right shows one of the 3 nearby remaining volcanoes  (located in the area used for filming Mordor and Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings) that is visible from Lake Taupo.

Rotorua is special because it is the world’s most concentrated and accessible geothermal area.  Part of “world’s most concentrated” label means there are plenty of geothermal hot spots to visit around Rotorua, most with entry fees.  And of course the place abounds with spas and natural hot pools at different temperatures (do you want to emerge pink, vermillion or crimson?), along with historic Priest pools (cures arthritis and rheumatism), private rock-lined romantic pools with champagne and lake view, or Rotorua hot mud treatments, etc etc etc.  Think tourism and lots of dollars!  (Side note: New Zealand in general is very very good at offering viable enticements to separate you from your money).  We opt to see some geysers at Te Puia (of the last post) and a colorful area called Wai-O-Tapu.  Below are the Te Puia geysers.  Unlike Yellowstone’s Old Faithful, these guys go off frequently and stay going for 45 minutes or so, so they’re mostly “on”.

Wai-O-Tapu is fascinating, and very colorful.  There are many fumaroles (holes that emit steam and mineral-laden gases), bubbling ponds or puddles blissfully simmering away, mud pools farting blobs that audibly plop back down, strange-colored pools, whitish solid silica flows, etc.  Signs tell us the colors of the ponds are due to the metal chemicals that boil up in them – that blue means chloride (must be funny chlorides; not part of my analytical chemistry course), orange means antimony and arsenic, gray/chocolate means sulfur and carbon, yellow/green means sulfate, and green/yellow means sulfur and arsenic, etc.   Let’s start by looking at the bubbling mud pools making disgusting sounds.

The amount of rain determines mud consistency and therefore surface patterns; pictures at the site show interesting circular, concentric designs on the smoking surface.  Alas, we’ve had a lot of rain and the surface is less texturally interesting, but the flying ploops are fun to watch.

Fumaroles are everywhere, belching clouds of vapor and making the place look ominous.  It should be noted that you smell Rotorua well before you see it, although the intensity varies.  George Bernard Shaw stated when he visited an area of Rotorua (Hell’s Gate) that it “reminds me too vividly of the fate theologians have promised me”.  There is a Bosch-like feeling to the landscape for sure, and vapors and smells cleverly add to the impression; nice marketing, Rotorua!  Back to fumaroles, often the vapors are coming from some pretty deep pits, formed when the vapors ate away the rock and the ceilings collapsed.  Often we can not see the origin of  the smoke, it’s hiding below the rims of the

pits.  We’re on a path, frequently with a fence, and instructions are everywhere saying not to leave the path because the ground is not stable.  The deep pits before us reinforce this message that the terra may not be firma, and everybody is on very good behavior; no one leaves the paths to walk to an edge for a better picture.  Even without Ginger threatening to kill me if I even think about it, I am sufficiently convinced.  I (and the other tourists!)

are good not only because the holes are deep but because we see small pools of boiling fluid near our feet that by extrapolation must lurk in bigger quantities troll-like at the bottom of these daddy holes.  I’ll just stay on the path, thank you.

Sulfur is a frequent component of the released vapor, and it plates out as crystals on the pit walls, as shown.  The image on the left has more color than just yellow, so the emitted gas must be pretty complex.

Sulfur knobEarthquakes sometimes tilt this region to a different level, draining areas that were once fluid and leaving domes of sulfur behind.  The one shown here is about 4 feet tall.

Many of the pits seem to specialize in particular elements.  The pits below are carbon pits, with an asphalt character to them.  Some regions of the pit are boiling, and the whole pit is slowly turning over with new yucky patterns emerging, almost as if it

were being stirred.  If this were hell, one might imagine that in the antithesis, heaven, this would be hot fudge sauce.  There is certainly nothing sweet-looking about the stuff in pits in front us.

Artist's PaletteAs we walk the trail, we come to a spectacular overlook of the Artist’s Palette – a very apt name!  As you can see, the colors are amazing, and made magical by the escaping wind-blown steam providing an ethereal, shifting dominance in the visible color scheme.

Let me show you some overviews as one hikes down to the Palette (click on an image).

The large green pond in the first two images is the Champagne Pool, the largest of the hot water springs here, so named because of the bubbles of CO2 that percolate up and float on the surface (show you later).  This pool has tilted due to earthquakes, and it now leaks water off to the left, forming an extensive solid silica “river” (show you later).  Wow!  The whole vista is amazing.  The yellowish area leading up to Champagne Pool is quite variable and interesting in its own right.  It looks solid, but I would not want to walk out there – some of it seems to be just a crust over water.

When you finally get to the Champagne Pool, surprise!  It is a green pond – but with an orange perimeter!  Awesome!

As shown below, the CO2 bubbles bubbling up and bouncing on the green pond surface are everywhere (best seen if you click).

I shot the sheriffThe many colors also lead to whimsy, as in the picture to the left.  How about “I shot the sheriff”?

What is hard to appreciate from these pictures is the movement, the swirling white clouds above this technicolor fantasy.  The wind blows the clouds around, and one moment much of the pond is clear and sharp, the next a lot of the view is in soft focus, and the next you can’t see anything but cloud, which you are standing in.  This must be what dreams are like, or madness, with reality coming and going.  The clouds also greatly affect the color, muting and blurring the tones, then just as quickly snapping them into sharp vividness.  I’ve tried to capture an inkling of the color-muting and blurring below.

Now realize that you go from that first picture to the last in just a couple seconds, and back, and you’ll get an inkling of the disorienting but mesmerizing effect on the senses.

There is more to see, so we leave this misty kaleidoscope and head down the path.  It’s a strange world of ponds and rivers of off-green colors.

As we walk along we encounter moss on a bank.  Are you kidding me?  Kaleidoscopic moss

now?  Are we smoking something?  Is it in the air?  Maybe we’ll be orange when we get back?  Maybe we’re in a Beatles movie?  We press on.

Little (and big!) pools and ponds are bubbling like crazy everywhere.

Just as it can’t get any more weird, we turn a corner and suddenly the small creek beside us is filled with some form of algae, with some spectacular greens.

This stuff can live in this water?  It’s very localized, so there must be something unique about this particular environment.

We come to the far end of our hike, the lake with normalish green water.  A stream is emptying cream-green water into it (I wonder if these colors change day-to-day?), but it

seems like an ordinary green lake, even though it is green, with ducks and such having a good time.  I test the water in the stream feeding the lake and the steam is only tepid in temperature, so somewhere cool water has been entering.  In the distance are a major geothermal power plant (that supplies something like 10% of NZ’s power needs) and a volcano (Maungakakaramea, or Rainbow Mountain), looking somewhat sinister off in the distance.

The walk back is a big loop that borders the Primrose Terrace, a solid silica river that grows from the runoff of the Champagne Pool.  The Terrace is impressive in its size (we walk along it a loooong way), although it’s not particularly pretty.  Up close one can see the details of “arrested flow” as water evaporation deposits silica as “siliceous sinter”.  The vapor seen in the last picture is from the Champagne Pool, located just over the crest of the hill.

Near the end of our trip and close to where we started, high up over the collapsed-ceiling boiling pits, we encounter some reds that have no obvious source.

A little further and we encounter our final amazing sight, a large pond in the most amazing and vibrant yellow/chartreuse you can imagine.   It’s dazzling.  Your mind thinks this can’t be real, surely this is a trick by Sherwin Williams, but it’s a very big pond and must be real.

We’ve reached the end of a pretty amazing visit.   I’ll leave you with one last image.  We Hot silica meets streampassed this spot at the beginning and end of the walk;  steaming water flows over a solid silica “creek” into a rushing fluid stream, a juxtaposition of three distinct phases in this wacky wonderland.

There are more nearby geothermal sites hawking their virtues, but it is hard to think they could be better.  If you have stayed with me through this very long post, I hope you have been as amazed as we were.  We were amazed by the strange beauty, certainly, but we were also confronted with the hellish and powerful reality beneath us.  We pretend the earth is solid all the way to China.  It is not.  We walk on a thin crust, and even that crust is not what we imagine.  Just over a mile below your feet, right now, the rock at that depth is too hot to touch.  Each mile deeper and the temperature goes up another 75ºF.   Further below our feet is a seething, restless hell-monster of magma and pressure, seeking weaknesses in the crust, building strength, and biding time in a very sinister way.  How tenuous is our presumed mastery of this planet!

Rotorua – Te Puia

Rotorua is a big tourist attraction, similar to Yellowstone Nat’l Park. It’s a geothermal area with geysers and smoking holes, sulfur and bubbling mud, hot springs and spas.  It’s also a Maori center; they own some of the thermal sites and take advantage of the influx of tourists to promote traditional cultural performances including hangi, a Maori feast where the food is cooked by burying it underground over hot rocks. We’ve done the cultural thing before (Bay of Islands post) but wanted the hangi, so we’ll look at another iwi”s (tribe’s) traditions. There are several performances/hangi available from different groups; we choose the one that houses the Maori Arts and Crafts Institute for teaching and preserving the Maori carving and weaving arts.

Yes, I’ve shown you Maori culture before, and so some of this post will be repetitive; my apologies, but it is an interesting culture.  In spite of the frequently barbarous practices of these Stone-age, fierce, warring tribes (eating the vanquished was real), they created some exquisite works of art.  I’m just going to share the art.

I’ve shown you this type of carving before. These are from an outdoor atrium of Te Puia, produced by the carving school, and they’re pretty impressive.

Our tour includes some geothermal wonders (next post!), and we get to their arts school pretty late; only one student is still working away, but the place is interesting even without any explanation.  Beautiful stuff!

The weaving is also fascinating, but here everyone has left the premises.  Weaving was/is done using the NZ flax plant.  It’s a big plant, kind of like our Spanish bayonet.  The (long!) leaf is cut and used for weaving, or the flesh carefully scraped away (with shell!) to obtain the internal band of strong material and then soaked and beaten to get fiber – apparently a process that is an art in itself.  That and feathers make up the clothes.  From the look of things, this is NOT easy.

Before quickly covering the ceremony and hangi, I’ll show a replica of an early Maori village; pretty simple wood huts similar to our Pacific Northwest Indians.  The carved, elevated storage building kept the food away from rodents.  The last picture is the village entry; a village was no bigger than the fence protecting it.  Such was the life.

The meeting house looks pretty much like others we have seen.  Before contact with Europeans, the Maori had no written language; oral tradition, facial tattoos, and wall carvings recorded their ancestry and history.  The style of carvings and wall weavings varies between tribes, so what we see in this marae are different than what we’ve seen before, but the nuances are lost on us  Those in the know would recognize the tribal differences.

Finally, the ceremony and hangi.  The “welcoming” and other traditional Maori ceremonies to us was  similar to the one in we saw at Waitangi.  Apparently tribal differences are pretty small in this area, perhaps because it was an important part of communicating intent and respect – get it wrong and risk war.  Because this is a big tourist center with competing productions, we were expecting a very polished and professional performance.  Instead, we ended up thinking the more intimate one in Waitangi was better.  Pictures below.

One of the different parts of this ceremony, however, was the chance to be taught some of the traditional dances.  We, of course, were terrific at this.  (Not! ed.)

Finally, the hangi.  It was indeed a feast, with the traditional food of several kinds of potatoes, chicken, pork and lamb, but no longer is this a dirt hole-in-the-ground affair!  Now they use firebrick pits and steel covers.  Pictures below.

The dinner was very good, supplemented by soup, salads and desserts, but a bit disappointing.  We had done a Hawaiian luau many many years ago where pork was cooked in the ground after wrapping with banana leaves, and the taste was unique and wonderful.   The hangi had a lot of good food, but alas with ordinary taste, and at a not-ordinary price.  But Hey!  Done a hangi?  Check.

Next post will feature the real attraction of Rotorua, the geothermal activity where hell and the devil appear to be too close for comfort.