Notes from Down Under

After snapping this photo, I went up to the family who were wondering why I was taking pictures of a puddle on the beach. They loved the photo and I happily emailed it to them. A week later, this beach town was devastated by Cyclone Gabrielle.

The joke goes something like this, no matter where we go in New Zealand, chaos soon follows.

It’s a pretty bad joke. And the punch line is a punch in the gut — chaos DOES follow us. So much so that friends have actually commented that we should stay away from them Down Under.

The weekend before we arrived on the shores of this remarkable country, it was hit with historic rains — flooding the airport, cascading through Auckland and causing spectacular damage to towns on our itinerary including entire highways being washed away. Some places got nearly a summer’s worth of rain (remember, it’s summer Down Under) and they got it in 24 hours.

After a lot of alternate planning and possibly even canceling the whole trip, we decided to just “wing” it and fly on in. Arriving at the airport, we didn’t even notice any signs of the previous week’s flooding.

All was good; everything’s fine.

Then it got weird. We noticed roads closed, whole highways even. “Slips,” what they call landslides here, dotted our journey. Continual trash heaps by the roadside told us of lost household belongings and we began to feel really bad about what happened to the North Islanders.

We seriously considered canceling our stay on the stunning Coromandel Peninsula, but the local population was begging for tourists to come; their earnings had been decimated. That highway that was washed away? That was directly along our route.

Happily, we kept to the plan. We had a great stay in accommodations built out of an old church and things were looking up. I wrote in my notes:

“A week in and we’re doing great, not too much of a disruption — for us anyway. Some detours around the slips and lengthier travel times, but we’ve been fortunate. We feel terrible for the folks that’ve suffered and eternally grateful for our luck.”

We failed to notice one of the most popular destinations on the peninsula closed (and still is, as of this writing) due to an avalanche or slip, mere hours after we hiked down to see it.

Cathedral Cove on the Coromandel Peninsula is absolutely stunning. And now it’s closed to the public after an avalanche happened hours after we visited.

Then our buddy texted us a screenshot of something called “Gabrielle.”

A cyclone, a bloody f#€k!n CYCLONE was bearing down on us from the northwest, up in the South Pacific. We jokingly called it a ‘nor wester.  Change our plans? Sure, maybe. But let’s see what we can get done. The night before Cyclone Gabrielle was expected to hit the far north, we impossibly decided to kayak out on a lake in the midsection of the North Island and paddle into some caves where glow worms resided. It was epic, “aypic” as the Kiwis — New Zealanders — pronounce it.

We headed south into Rotorua. In the middle of their downtown, hot springs, mud pools and steam vents burble up all over. They are portals from Down Under, literally and figuratively. Imagine Yellowstone Park in the middle of Troy, Michigan. It was otherworldly and impossibly perfect for photos.

Rotorua can seem MISTical.

A steamy hot Marci strolls through some of the fun walkways in Rotorua.

A beautiful sunset graces the sky as we kayak out into Lake Okareka to see the glow worm caves.

We went even further south, thinking our plans to stay in “the highest hotel in New Zealand” would keep us safe from any flooding. We should’ve been tipped off by the resort’s location next to Mount Doom. Really! It was the actual mountain Peter Jackson filmed in The Lord of the Rings movie series, based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s iconic novels. We also should’ve considered the obvious fact that cyclones not only bring rain, but something the Kiwis call “wind.”

The guy at the front desk told us this would literally be the storm of the century. He also added that the resort had been around for a hundred years and wasn’t going anywhere. He was very reassuring. I did the mental math — which wasn’t easy — but realized 100 years IS a century. Our night blew. But a delicious glass of potent wine they served helped calm the butterflies, if there were any that weren’t blown away by the cyclone. So with white noise playing on our devices, we managed to drown out the white noise outside just a little. Marci commented that, “the big bad wolf was possibly gonna win this round.”

We take a stormy selfie at Skotel Alpine Resort, billed as “New Zealand’s Highest Hotel.”

With my wife’s continual expert driving on the left side of the road (left is right and right is wrong) we hightailed it outta there the next morning. I probably should mention here that Mount Doom experienced some minor volcanic activity, according to our app, just after we left!

Things seemed decent at the southern tip of the North Island in Wellington. We even managed to get into a tour of their Parliament, standing on the floor where the great Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern helmed her country until a week or so prior. Humorously, the security guard who checked us in referred to the Prime Minister as her. I corrected him and said it was a dude now. He laughed at his mistake.

But Cyclone Gabrielle kept pummeling the North Island, including savaging the Northlands where we first stayed for several days, the Coromandel Peninsula once again as well as the lovely Piha Beach pictured at the very top of this story. She finally found her way to Wellington. We had no wellies, but our rain gear sufficed. We were eager to get away from it all and head to the south island as we’d planned. Hmmm… not so fast! Apparently boats and car ferries don’t like crossing in choppy cyclone waters. Who knew?

Marci needed a tooth fixed so we sought out a dentist before we left the big city. After telling the dental assistant about the weirdness following us, she playfully screamed that we really needed to leave the North Island now!!

I made up these graphics and sent them out to friends and social media during the two major events.

And then a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck in the nearby bay an hour or two after she said that. It was hard not to take things personally at this point. Our friend we stayed with way up in the Northlands wrote, “No offense, but maybe the north island is safer without you,” and added a smiley face emoji. She was right.

But then we heard back in Michigan the Air Force shot down an unknown object over our Great Lakes and the insane gun violence continued, this time at Michigan State University, where I used to teach. So we were shocked out of our woe-is-me state. Again we felt grateful for everything we’ve been able to experience here as an ice storm slammed the Upper Midwest back home.

Yes, the Cyclone finally passed, but the ferries were booked solid. With no way to get across for days, we found tickets on a small airplane, flying out of Wellington International Airport from a check-in counter so randomly located, no one in the airport could tell us where it was and we hopped on the plane with a dozen other passengers, NONE of us going through security! Leaving our rental car behind, we flew south and had to book TWO more rental cars due to the lack of cars available caused by Covid and Cyclone.

It’s been great down here on the South Island. It feels like a totally different country and climate. Locals have told us they’ve had record high heat this summer and drought-like conditions.

Marci does yoga at our stunning Airbnb in Queenstown, the furthest South we’ve ever been in the world.

Yesterday our Airbnb host said they’d only had one rainy day all summer and those threatening-looking clouds to the north would likely take a turn and head up a different valley like they’ve done all along. You guessed it by now; I’m sitting here after 24 hours of rain. And it got down into the 30s overnight, with snow atop the mountains across the bay from us. So oh well, whatever. Maybe I AM a harbinger. Perhaps chaos is stalking us and those in our path.

We really feel badly for all the Kiwis affected by the storms. This is only the third State of Emergency the country has EVER declared. The other two were after the terrible Christchurch earthquake, then for Covid. But I have to say, New Zealand and its people have been incredible. I can see why zillionaires want to build their Apocalypse bunkers here.

Our trek has been aypic as we’ve wandered Down Under along The Pacific Ring of Fire. I’m glad I listened to the calming words of my cousin — who upon hearing my pre-trip anxieties — texted me saying, “It’s gonna be an adventure; take it one step at a time.”

He’s right. Our journey has been legendary. And yes, we look forward to going home too. I can’t help but quote Tolkien’s Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, who sang:

Roads go ever ever on

Under cloud and under star,

Yet feet that wandering have gone

Turn at last to home afar.

We are so, so grateful for this adventure. The only thing more magnificent than the scenery is the pleasant friendliness of the Kiwis we met for moments or days. These are the kind of memories that will last a …

Wait, what … ANOTHER earthquake alert rattles my phone as I’m writing, this time here on the South Island!? I guess it’s become a thing now. I shake my head.

Okay, in all honesty, I’m convinced I’m not really a harbinger of (Mount) doom. Quakes, winds, floods and volcanoes happen all the time without individual human conceit. Although Global Warming plays a huge part in the grand scheme of it all. They are VERY aware of Climate Change down here.

We are poised to enjoy the remainder of our journey and fly back on the metaphoric wings of eagles, much like those we met in the Wellington airport.

Gandalf rides an eagle above the Wellington airport’s terminal. Other Hobbit and Lord of the Rings props created by Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop also grace the friendly skies there.

Here’s hoping we can keep all the scary dragons at bay, Mother Nature’s or Peter Jackson’s! I can’t wait to share more from our fun adventure Down Under.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s dragon, Smaug, keeps a leery eye open in the Wellington Airport.


For More Notes From Down Under, feel free to visit:

Never, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, Go Into a Cave With a Photographer

The Stars of the Southern Hemisphere

Notes From Down Under

Notes From Down Under: Wild Horses & Strawberry

Notes From Down Under: Kerosene Creek

Notes From Down Under: Hobbiton

Notes From Down Under: Penguin Parade