One wedding, two Kiwi families, one long-lasting friendship, a honeymoon for three, five domestic flights, one road trip, Christmas down under, wind and rain, sunshine and the beach, barbecues, wine and even more wine, New Year’s Eve in a rural country pub, Māoris, Pākehās, a very special interview and too many encounters with great people to count them all: A declaration of love for a very special island and a report about one of the most extraordinary holidays of my life…
18 years ago, our friendship started with this letter. It arrived in Germany in the early days of the Internet. Julia and I first met on Englishtown.com, known today as EF English Live, the world’s leading E-learning platform for students of the English language. Back then, I vaguely knew where New Zealand was in the world. But I thought that the name of this island at the other end of the world sounded very cool and that it would surely be fun to exchange letters with someone who lives so far away from Germany.
18 years later, I was standing next to Julia as one her two bridesmaids right before her wedding in her parents‘ holiday house in the region of Tora, one of the last untouched coastal areas close to Wellington and the Wairarapa. This region in the south-eastern corner of the North Island of New Zealand is lightly populated and has several rural service towns including Martinborough and the largest town Masterton.
The bad weather obviously took a break to make Julia and Grant smile on their very special day. How I enjoyed everything on these very first days of my three weeks in New Zealand: The beautiful view of Tora beach during the picnic, the wedding ceremony which was conducted by a female registrar from Tora in the garden of the Lindsays‘ holiday home, the wonderfully decorated tables inside the tent that Julia, her friends and I had set the day before… But what made this wedding really special and unforgettable were the many encounters with people I’d gotten to know during my first trip to New Zealand 15 years ago – and with a lot of very lovely new people who were part of Grant’s and Julia’s families. It was only in Tora that I discovered that Grant is actually half-Māori when I saw the greenstone necklace his father Darren was wearing. „Pounamu“, which means greenstone in the Māori language, plays a very important role in the culture of the indigenous people of New Zealand. It is considered a „taonga“ (treasure) and therefore protected under the Treaty of Waitangi which was signed in 1840 by representatives of the British Crown and Māori chiefs from the North Island of New Zealand to frame the political relation between the indigenous population and the so-called „Pākehās“, the New Zealand people of European descent.
I remember the moment when three of Grant’s four brothers and his sister stepped up to present a very special Haka dance in front of the wedding guests:
I only knew this traditional Māori dance from Rugby matches, which I had watched on YouTube and from promotional videos for tourist cultural experiences.
The haka is a type of ancient Māori war dance traditionally used on the battlefield, as well as when groups came together in peace – a fierce display of a tribe’s pride, strength and unity. Actions include foot-stamping, tongue protrusions and rhythmic body slapping with a loud chant. The words of a haka often poetically describe ancestors and events in the tribe’s history.
Today, the haka dance is still used during Māori ceremonies and celebrations to honor guests and show the importance of the occasion. This includes family events like birthdays and weddings. Or so-called „cultural experiences“ at a lot of tourist places in New Zealand such as Rotorua. I don’t want to criticize this way of preserving the Maori culture at all – but a tourist could never experience the feelings I had when I watched Thomas on the left, Michael in the middle, Pene on the right and Vivian in the back of this video reaching out to the wedding audience in a very authentic, emotional way. Pene hardly had any voice for a few days after the big event and the other boys also seemed quite exhausted the day after (not only because of the haka dance, of course 🙂 – I think that all of them couldn’t have thought of a more wonderful gift for Grant, the oldest of the Rewi boys.
For me, the perfect Kiwi wedding definitely has to include the following things:
- No bad weather alternative: Man, it’s summer in New Zealand! And it’s never been raining in Tora at Christmas throughout the last years. Don’t worry, the weather will be fine tomorrow…
- Sandals: Because they are not only the ideal wedding shoes in Tora, but a great headdress on the dancefloor.
- Alcohol: LOT’S OF ALCOHOL! Be sure to make an end to the wedding party at around midnight, because your 150 bottles of beer and wine are going to be finished by then already
- A food truck: Because you will get the best food ever!
- A German bridesmaid… who brings over black pants after she’s been asked to bring a slip to New Zealand to wear it under her green bridesmaid dress. Oh well, why not wear a black top and a skirt pulled up to belly button and tied around the waist instead. I thought that I looked gorgeous 🙂
- Wedding speeches: At least 5 of them! They should all be different and very special to remember for the wedding couple.
- A picnic on the beach before the wedding ceremony
- Heavy rain in the evening: Because only then you can easily keep your wedding guests inside the tent and have the best party you can imagine!
This wedding was not only so special, because I got to see Julia and her family again 15 years after I had first visited New Zealand. Back then, I chose to spend my school-free summer holidays of five weeks at Samuel Marsden Collegiate School with Julia – an absolutely incredible time where I met lovely girls such as Lulu who visited me in Germany together with Julia in 2006. Now, 18 years later, I met the Marsden girls again in Tora. It was as if no time had passed at all. Zoe, Kate, Fleur, Sarah, Lulu and Thea: What a pleasure to have seen you again! You made my trip to New Zealand in 2003 so special and I will never forget the surprise party you organized for my 18th birthday right before I had to leave your beloved island again.
After so much excitement and this very special start into my Kiwi experience, I was heading towards the next exciting event: For the second time in my life, I didn’t spend Christmas with my family at home in Germany. The weather was almost as bad as it is often at Christmas in Germany, so there was no need of getting home-sick. What would be better to do during these rainy days than to go for a little walk? When Julia’s sister asked me if I wanted to join the Lindsay family on the Patuna Chasm Walk, I immediately said yes, because I love walking. Besides, I know that Andrea’s little kids were joining our group – so I was pretty sure that their parents had chosen an easy way for our family trip. When we were eating our breakfast in the morning in Tora, it was already heavily raining. „There’s no rain here at all“, the farmer who brought us to the spectacular limestone chasm with his car one hour later said on the phone before we left the house. 25 NZ$ for the transport per person: Who would miss the opportunity to make a bit of money on a day like this! I was quite surprised that there were many other crazy people like us who chose to go for a walk in this bad weather.
We were already soaking wet when we arrived at the beginning of the walk – so fighting your way through the Ruakokoputuna river shortly afterwards wasn’t actually as hard as I’d expected it to be. The water is one metre deep in some places and the rocks in it can be quite slippery – this is what Julia soon found out when she landed in the water. I really admired her for her patience on that day…
Don’t get me wrong: This 3-hour-walk through the bush, chasm and Ruakokoputuna river was one of the most exciting and funny walks I’d ever done in my life! As I kid, however, I would have killed my parents if they’d forced me to slip down muddy ways and be freezing cold almost all the time. But the kids of Julia’s sister Andrea and her husband Brandon were simply fantastic – thanks to their very relaxed parents.
Patuna Farm Adventures
236 Haurangi Rd
After this first hiking experience in New Zealand in the rain, I was very much looking forward to my first Christmas in the sun. Oh wait – where was the sun again…? I don’t know what I did wrong, but this was the first Christmas where Julia and her parents didn’t have to hide in the shade at Tora, because the sun was almost burning them. Instead, Julia and her husband Grant, her parents, her mum’s brother and his wife, Julia’s sister Andrea and her family and me gathered around the fireplace of the holiday home in Tora, because the temperature didn’t rise to more than 13 or 14°C. But although it was pretty cold and although I really enjoy our German Christmas, I could get used to eating barbecues around the clock at the end of December. However, I would have to get used to the kitschy Christmas trees and to the fact that Christmas rather felt like a big summer party than the most solemn part of the year.
Driving through New Zealand, you constantly feel like in the middle of a Lord of the Rings set. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw all those amazing landscapes passing by! And thank God I didn’t have to sit behind the steering wheel, because besides the fact that you have to drive on the left in this country, the streets are quite curvy and you cannot compare them at all to our German motorways. By the way, there are now 363 km of motorways and expressways in New Zealand – most of them around the largest cities like Auckland and Wellington – with another 124 km planned for development by 2022.
Our first stop on this road trip was the Pūkaha National Wildlife Centre, an excellent place when you want to see a lot of native and endangered New Zealand birds such as the kākā – a kind of parrot – the takahē or the kiwi.
With its 59.000 inhabitants, Rotorua is very popular among both domestic and international tourists, because of its geothermal activity, its geysers such as the Pohutu Geyser at Whakarewarewa and its hot mud pools. The thermal activity is sourced to the Rotorua caldera, where the town lies. It is one of several large volcanoes located in the Taupo Volcanic Zone on the North Island of New Zealand and has last erupted about 240.000 years ago. You can read more about the eruptive history of the city here.
As really every tourist attraction in this beautiful country is extremely expensive to visit, I can only recommend a visit to the Kuirau Park right in the middle of Rotorua where you can see all the mud pools, an amazing crater lake and hot springs for free. In the early 1800s, the small lake in the centre of the park was much cooler and was known as Taokahu. According to a legend, a beautiful young woman named Kuiarau was bathing in the waters when a taniwha (dragon) dragged her to his lair below the lake. The infuriated gods above made the lake boil so that the Taniwha would be destroyed forever. Since then, the bubbling lake and the steaming land around it have been known by the name of the lost woman – only the spelling of her name has changed a bit from Kuiarau to ‘Kuirau.’Te Puia, a geothermal valley just five minutes from Rotorua central city of 60 hectares with a geyser, mud pools and boiling water. I had last seen a geyser erupting at the age of 16 when I visited Iceland – this is why I spent almost half an hour in front of the famous Pohutu Geyser at Te Puia which erupts up to twenty times a day and up to thirty metres high into the air. After a week of very heavy rain in the Tora region, it felt so good to feel the sun, which had reappeared on this beautiful day, on my skin. But be careful: Good sun protection is necessary, because the ozone layer is permanently thin in this part of the world.
The day after, Grant drove Julia and me back to Wellington again. We started into this day at the Polynesian Spa in Rotorua which is a great place if you go there at 8am in the morning just as we did.Spoon & Paddle café in Taupo where I finally got a wonderful porridge and – as everywhere around New Zealand – a very good cup of coffee.
101 Heuheu St.
On the South Island, we stayed with Grant’s lovely parents Darren and Debbie and his brothers Thomas, Pene and Michael for some days. They live in Francton, a suburb of Queenstown. The city with it’s about 30.000 inhabitants calls itself the „adventure capital of the world“. The list of adventures you can throw yourself into around this city ranges from bungy jumping to alpine heliskiing or zip-lining. Activities I was definitely not eager to do during my stay in New Zealand… Queenstown is full of tourists at this holiday season number 1 of the year – so I was very happy when Grant’s mum offered to show me a very different and far more exciting part of the region where she and her family are living in. Debbie had planned a barbecue on one day at 4pm when she told Julia and me around 2.30pm that we’re going to go for a „short ride“ across the Crown Range Road, New Zealand’s highest main road. It is an extremely curvy road which reaches an altitude of 1121 metres, which brings certain challenges for drivers.
Wow, what unforgettable views we got every time Debbie stopped the car! At around 4.30pm, Debbie still wasn’t worried about the guests who would turn up for the barbecue at her house, but suggested to drink a beer with us at Cadrona Hotel. Situated on the spectacular Crown Range Road, it is one of New Zealand’s oldest and most iconic hotels. Taste the Cadrona Gold while you’re here and make sure to visit the beer garden in the back of the hotel if the weather is fine.
The next day – another adventure! I had found a special deal on Bookme New Zeland to go to Milford Sound for one day. Well, I had checked the weather forecast before and I knew it said „heavy rain all day long“ for the whole Milford sound region. Situated on the west coast of the South Island, it is a world-renowned natural wonder with towering peaks and cascading waterfalls, especially on a rainy day like the one I chose. I met some very nice tourists on the bus with who I spent the day with. Julia and Grant had a whole day off where they didn’t have to care about their crazy German, by the way :). I didn’t care about the engine of our bus which didn’t work properly and due to which we had to spend 2 hours in a little town on our way till another, much smaller bus was sent to pick us up there from Queenstown. Just as my three very religious travel buddies for the day prayed for another bus to come, we already spotted it around the corner! I also kept my „sweet as“ Kiwi attitude when we were doing the boat tour at Milford Sound where you could hardly see anything because of all the heavy clouds around us. This day was great nevertheless – but if you have a choice to choose a day for Milford Sound where there is only sunshine predicted, I’d definitely go for this day.
The 1st of January was one of the hardest days during my holidays. Not only because I was slowly beginning to get a very bad summer cold, but mostly because I had to leave Julia and Grant. I don’t have any words to describe how grateful I am for everything Julia has done for me to make my Kiwi experience so unique and so unforgettable. The friendship with her has lasted for a longer time than most marriages do today. I’m really happy that Julia and Grant are going to return to Europe again for their long (and real) honeymoon in Europe at the end of May. We’re going to see each other again in Hamburg this June – Grant still has to think about whether he wants the crazy German in his honeymoon suite again or not :).
„Make sure to get out of this boring city“ and „why on earth are you going to Christchurch?“, Julia said when I told her about my plans to spend two nights in the city on the east coast of the Southern Island. Honestly, I only chose to stay there for some days, because I needed to choose a city where the flight connections to the very north of the North Island were excellent.
Christchurch was by far the greatest surprise for me during my trip. My visit to the city started off with a very nice elder lady driving me to my hostel All Stars on Inn at Bealey which is located around 2km from the city centre. I had gotten off too soon from the bus that should have taken me from the airport right next to the street where my hostel was and I must have seemed very lost to the lady and her granddaughter who offered me a ride in their car. As I have never done a backpacking trip before, I was quite reluctant to stay in a hostel room with people I don’t know. In the end, I was very glad that I booked a sleeping place in a four-bed room for women where I met two very nice women my age, Kristin from Germany and Stephanie from the US. With Kristin, I did not only cook and eat in the evenings, but also spent a whole day in a city which became my most favorite New Zealand city of all. I can still remember the pictures on TV in 2011 when a 6.2 earthquake occurred in Christchurch on 22 February at 12:51pm. Christchurch’s central city and eastern suburbs were badly affected, with damage to buildings and infrastructure already weakened by the magnitude 7.1 Canterbury earthquake of 4 September 2010 and its aftershocks. 185 people from more than 20 countries died back then. At Quake City, you can get a very good insight into the science and the phenomenon of liquefaction. And you learn a lot about the personal fates of the people who got injured due to the big earthquake and about those people who risked their lives to save them.
This city isn’t forced to develop according to a master plan created by their city officials. Instead, I had the feeling that the residents who have all been affected by the devastating earthquake have been given the chance to think of a new identity for their city which obviously is never going to be the same again. Amazing new architecture and design is popping up constantly along some of Christchurch’s more classic buildings – and you can see a lot of wonderful street art everywhere along the way.
As I’m writing these lines, I realize that I could go on like this for hours. These three weeks were special and live-changing in a way that no other holiday had ever been before. I’d like to thank my wonderful friend Julia again for her offer to come over to her wedding and I thank this beautiful country and his people for their hospitality and their friendliness. I hardly every cry when I’m on the plane heading towards Germany again after a holiday. This time, I had to cry a lot, because I don’t know when I get the chance to return to the other end of the world again. New Zealand and all you wonderful people I met on my way: You stay in my heart!