After a particularly grueling few days of staying up too late, I needed a soul recharge. About 11 o'clock yesterday morning, I did a quick google search for activities in New Zealand, and I came across a seal encounter tour. As it's quiet in New Zealand now, I thought to phone the group to see if they were doing tours. Fortunately for me, they were, but the tours were completely empty. After requesting a student discount (which they gave me, awesome), I hoofed it over to the iSite Visitor's Center downtown and met the guide. Myself, a gentleman from Auckland, and the guide Billy and I were off.
After about 3 minutes of driving out of town, I start to see panoramas unlike any I have ever seen. As we began to climb out onto Ashton Fitchart Drive, you begin to be surround 360 with rolling hills and mountains covered in the yellow flowers of the gorse bush. Here, the wind turbines stand 100 metres high and are adorned with blades that reach 60 metres. You can hear them whir in the wind behind you as you look out over the harbour in nearby Wellington. Remnants of the last catastrophic earthquake (1855) are everywhere, as if the quake was yesterday. Billy reminds us that Wellington is seven years behind schedule for the next big one for the Wellington Fault, and it puts things in perspective. These massive mountains and boulders sit restless under our eyes, and one cannot help but to feel the power radiating from the rock.
We pass by a pair of ostriches, bought for $15,000 a pair in New Zealand. Unfortunately, the birds don't sit on their eggs in captivity, so that is an investment that hasn't panned out for most. Billy shows us the Marnica Bush used to make honey. Before he plucks the leaves, he asks the plant's spirit for permission and hums a sort of mantra that puts us in an almost trance. Maybe I should have been doing that every time I've gone to pick flowers? Farther down the way, we come across mushrooms that look like they have been dipped in red paint and lacquered. They are large, shiny, and absolutely gorgeous amongst the green palette of the hills, almost begging you to eat them. In Russia, there are stories of reindeer succumbing to the charms of the red. The story is that the reindeer would eat the mushrooms and become high enough to feel like they are flying (hence, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer). From that, the story of Santa Claus...really makes a person question things!
The guide tells me that Harwoods Hall Beach Forest is the most incredible place he has seen in New Zealand, so I take a mental note. I'm absolutely going there as soon as I can. In front of me, there is a medium size mountain that emerges from nowhere. It's Mount Doom from Lord of the Rings. I've GOT to watch one of those...
Another plant, the Koa Koa, is distinguishable from it's heart shape and red stem. Hikers chew on it to prevent toothaches, and the Maori use it to cleanse their blood and rejuvenate the brain. I tear off a chunk and begin to chew. It tastes like pepper and vinegar, and it makes me dizzy almost immediately. I spit it out instead of swallowing, and I hope my blood doesn't suffer as a result. These leaves are no joke.
After a few hours of exploring the hill sides, we come across two wild horses. Taking a minute to stare at an unbridled creature makes you feel right in your heart. It is the way it should be, and the way it will always be here (I hope). As we turn the corner, there is a crooked lighthouse in the distance, but the waves are breaking so high that the beach is washed out. We retreat to the opposite side of the beach and encounter a few seals lying in the sunlight. What must feel warm to them has me shivering, and I begin to understand this layering thing. Seeing these seals in their natural habitat makes my heart smile, and knowing that soon, there will be orcas here feeding on them - kind of makes me smile too. I feel bad about that a little bit... The seals are a sleepy animal. With huge bursts of energy for hunting and play, they must crash hard. I think I came upon them at the crash stage. After staring at the seals for a bit, we stopped on an angle at one of the beaches and listened. Here, the pebbles on the beach sound like a rainstick as the waves surround them and pull back out to sea. After traveling so far, you almost feel like the water is sighing in and out with satisfaction. You can feel the sound in your chest before you can process it in your eardrums, and it feels like magic. I have plans to camp there as soon as I can. David, you with me?!
Billy, the guide, stops so the three of us can have a bit of tea and biscuits (New Zealand for cookie - it was my first word, respect) and relax for a moment while we continue to listen. The seals look up at us as if to say "Hey, give me that cookie" and then fall asleep. I've been there, so I understand the sentiment. I'm on the most beautiful natural harbor I have ever seen, drinking tea with two new friends, a seal, and water so loud it screams. Life is good.
To cap off the day, I went to meet some new friends and watched pieces of LOTR. I couldn't focus on it, but I did recognize a few places I was seeing. How amazing is that?
The night before last, I met David Campbell (my fellow ambassadorial scholar) out on Cuba Street. Over a drink at Matterhorn, we got to know each other. David is a person I feel an instant connection with. I'm sure he doesn't know it, but I see pieces of myself in him, and it makes me feel at home just to be around him. He is a wonderful guy, and I'm happy to know him here in this amazing country. Rotary has done a fantastic job of selecting scholars (thanks again Rotarians, we are loving life here). David and I moved on to the next bar, Hotel Bristol, and played a game of pool (that would eventually turn into about 8 games)...We made quite a few new kiwi friends, and I hope to meet them again sometime soon for coffee. Elliott, one of the gentlemen from Wellington, explained to me that he knew EXACTLY how to sound like an American from the south. It goes like this. "Howdy y'aaalll. Go out thereee and check on the chili on the barbeeeecue." "Elliott, you do know that you don't cook chili on the barbie, right?" "You don't?" "Nope, you don't." I think I may have crushed his heart in that moment.
Rotary Orientation today at 4 o'clock. I cannot wait to meet my new club. Icing on the cake, I get to reconvene with some of the amazing scholars from my region in the states. What a great start to an already wonderful weekend.