With the release of the second trailer of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I feel there have been enough images of the movie set released, like these ones for example, that I can show my poor photos taken a year ago without worrying that I’ll spoil anything.

So, consider this post as a suplement for the Matamata post. This is what the Hobbiton movie set looked like few days before shooting the Hobbit last year.


WEEKEND, 30th Sept. – 2nd Oct.

Just when I started adapting myself to New Zealand (I even bought NZ Listener, because there was a really good article “Face Off” about selling out Maori cultural heritage), I met my countrymen. Maybe you remember that I had met some Poles a few times in Australia and it wasn’t a big deal to be Polish there. Here, on the other hand, about 2-3 hour flight further south being a Polish visitor is quite unusual. Makes me feel special, but little lonely at the same time. I also feel very responsible for representing my country well, because some people might never meet Polish again and their opinion about my country is based on meeting me. Wow, I feel heavy just thinking about it!

Anyway, my friend from Levin had given me contact details to a Polish lady, who actually was a New Zealander but her mum was born in Poland. I didn’t know how old D. could be, but after her voice on the phone, I was guessing she could be in my mum’s age i.e. 60ish, which made me curious about her mum and how she got to New Zealand. I was about to learn some amazing story about Polish children, mostly orphans and the generous new land.

But let’s keep the facts in the chronological order.

On Friday, I checked out from the YHA hostel before 10 a.m., but I stayed inside, had late breakfast and waited for D. to pick me up at 1:30 p.m. As I guessed, D. was in her 60s and very happy to see me and to speak some Polish. We didn’t go straight to her home. First we went to a private Anglican primary school, where her son-in-law was a head-master in acting. She had to pick something up from the school, but because it was the end of term, we stayed for the end of term chapel service (kids here have 2 week holiday now and I feel sorry for them, because the weather has been awful since Monday). It was my first New Zealand school and I had a really good impression. The school choir was amazing!

On the way to D.’s home, we visited her daughter in Johnsonville and I met her two little children. They were playing outside, getting wet and dirty in two small pools and I was thinking that they have the best childhood you can ever get.

D. and her husband De. live on the outskirts of Porirua, a small town, like Johnsohnville, north of Wellington. When we arrived, De. just got back from work and he welcomed me with a big smile and said he knew three sentences in Polish, “Jesteś moja kochana żona” (You’re my beloved wife), “Ja ciebie mocno kocham” (I love you very much) and “Co będziemy dzisiaj jedli na obiad?” (What are we having for dinner today?). I told him it was the right order to learn them.

We dropped off my bags in my room, De. got changed and took me on a ride through a narrow valley up the hill to Paekakariki. From there, looking north I saw Kapiti Island, where a bird sanctuary is.

Yes, it was that beautiful and sunny a couple of days ago. On south I saw the South Island for the first time.

It seems to be like another country I need to go to. I got comfortable on the North Island. I have spent so much time here, made friends, got to know the roads and now there’s another land with no friends… yet.

We were back in an hour, picked D. up and went to Topór, a Polish restaurant in Plimmerton! Tasting sausage made me feel homesick so hard that I got tears in my eyes. I recognized Polish bands playing from the speakers, mostly classics from the 60s and 70s: Skaldowie, Czerwone Gitary (their leader, Krzysztof Klenczon was born in my home town!) and even Karel Gott from Czechoslovakia. You could order Polish beer, Żywiec or vodka, Luksusowa. It was so weird. The owner of the restaurant had Polish roots, but he didn’t speak Polish apart from some essential phrases, like “Na Zdrowie!” (Cheers!) It was so freaky to hear him explaining to his customers some Polish customs.

But not all dishes were strictly Polish (there was bigos, of course!). There were some Italian or Kiwi additions and cheesecake wasn’t very Polish (yep, there’s a shortage of the proper cottage cheese) and ice cream had interesting flavours, like dill or pepper, but as long as there was some vodka in them, they were all right.

After dinner we went on the hill in Plimmerton. It was too late for the sunset, but the sky was still beautiful and the colours from deep blue to fire red were like from a children’s book, so intense and unreal. I could see flat like a table Mana Island very close and very distant picks of the South Island, from Marlborough Sounds Maritime Park up to Haymer Forest Park on Kaikoura peninsula hundreds kilometers away. You have to believe my word, because I didn’t have my camera with me.

On SATURDAY morning De. made me a surprise. I had told him that my dad had a twenty year old car. Well, after breakfast De. took me for a ride with this:

I was speechless, when I saw her. Isn’t she beautiful? 1930 Ford model A. He bought her in 1970s for $1000. I was grinning all the time we were driving.

We went to a local attraction, Aotea Lagoon. It was a great park for family with playgrounds for small and bigger kids, a lake, a railway and some geese peacefully nesting their eggs under the bushes.

We went back home, had lunch. I had been craving for soup recently and D. made soup which tasted very Polish. She had some project to make till Monday, so she stayed at home. We changed cars and De. took me to show the place he grew up in, which was Taita in Lower Hutt. De. showed me the hill where Peter Jackson was shooting LOTR near his suburb (Wikipedia: Dry Creek quarry, which dominates the hills above the suburb of Taitā, became the site for a huge medieval castle built for scenes of Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith.) We also went to Plimmerton again and bought some sausages at a butcher who had been to Poland. He had bought a cook book and now makes amazing sausages according to Polish recipes. I said to the butcher that the smell at his shop was like back home. He seemed to be very honoured to hear that and proud.

In the afternoon, De. went to see a rugby match in Wellington, D. was working on her project and I spent my time sitting on veranda and reading books with testimonies of Polish people who came to New Zealand on 1st November 1944 when they were still children. In 1939, when Stalin invaded eastern Poland called Kresy, his army packed thousands of Polish families from Lvov area to trains and like animals they were transported to Siberia. D.’s mum was about 13 back then, and she and her family were one of those people. When Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, Stalin made an agreement with General Sikorski and gave the amnesty to Siberian prisoners, closing the borders, though, so that people couldn’t escape from the Soviet Union. Those who survived eternal winter in Siberia, went south to Uzbekistan, but the conditions were even worse there. People were dying so fast, that no one bothered to dig graves. D.’s mum’s both parents died there within a week from typhus. Their next stop was Persia where they boarded a ship USS General Randall with Kiwi and US soldiers going home. The New Zealand government invited Polish orphans to their country to wait until the end of the war to return Poland and so on 1 November 1944 733 children and 110 caregivers arrived in Wellington. D.’s mum was one of the caregivers, because she was already 16, but her younger brothers were among those children. They stayed at a refugee camp near Pahiatua (in Maori it means “god’s resting place”). When the war was over, they couldn’t go back to Poland, though, because the country was sold out to Stalin. He asked the NZ government to give him the children back, but the Prime Minister Peter Fraser refused to do that and so they stayed. You can read about it more here and I’ve found a two part documentary The Story of Seven-Hundred Polish Children on NZ On Screen.

On Sunday afternoon, I met D.’s mum. Looking at the photos at her home, I couldn’t stop thinking how powerful saving just one life is. New Zealand to those kids was like Schindler to some Jews, although it wasn’t their enemy, while Schindler was German. But seeing now this big family born out of her womb was like seeing the whole world saved.

Here I’m with Maria and one of her great grandsons (who is a big fan of mine).

What else I did that weekend. When De. came back from the game on Saturday evening, he came with his son, who is a grand announcer at the Wellington Stadium. Funny that first I met his voice at the match I went to in September and now I met the person. A very nice voice and a very nice person.

On SUNDAY morning I went to Catholic Church with D.&De. out of curiosity. I used to be Catholic, so I wanted to see the differences between Polish and New Zealand church. I had that feeling that people were more involved in the life of the parish and it was interesting to be at a mass where English and Maori were spoken and sang interchangeably.

The sculpture of the Risen Christ with Maori influences.

In the afternoon I helped my friends babysit. De. took his grandson and me to Brooklyn to see the Wind Turbine. I liked the view from that hill best, because looking from north to south I could see the CBD of Wellington, Hutt Valley and Lower Hutt on the other side of the bay, then on the right the exit from the bay where ferries go through to Picton, the South Island, then closer to us Miramar peninsula and then back the suburbs of Wellington.

We drove through Aro Valley with very pretty old houses and very narrow Devon Street. We went to meet Maria and try her delicious ‘rogaliki’, which tasted like my grandma’s and in the evening we had dinner with D.&De. daughter and her husband in Johnsonville.

After one month in New Zealand and over two months of being away from home, I had a slice of Poland that weekend.

from Hamilton to Wellington

THURSDAY, 8th Sept.

That was another enjoyable trip by InterCity bus. It takes about 9 hours to drive from Hamilton to Wellington and I thought I would have some sleep, but it was difficult when you had such a great driver and good atmosphere on a bus, that you didn’t want to miss anything. Oh, and the landscape was breathtaking.

I had booked one night at YHA hostel in Wellington in the city centre, but InterCity has its terminal at the train station which is further north, so I’d have to take a bus from there and look for the hostel. I asked the driver, his name was James, if the bus goes through the city centre. When I told him where I want to get off, he said to ask him again when we get closer to Wellington and we would see, because it all depends from his mood and how the journey would go. There were a few other people with the same request, so we said to each other not to tease the driver.

And I wasn’t worried about it. James made this trip unforgettable from the very beginning. He announced safety features with a Scottish accent and Kiwi humour making everyone laugh. He said that there was no toilet in that bus, so Hamilton was their chance to make a pee and if you didn’t go, shame on you. In case you wanted to go to the toilet during the drive, he could open the door and you could water the sideroad. That’s why the grass is so green in New Zealand. He also warned us to fasten our seatbelts. If there was an accident, no one would want to land on his front naighbour’s lap, unless it would be a match made in heaven then don’t forget to thank InterCity on the way out. Those are just a few examples of James’s jokes.

Further south, the hills were taller and covered with forests. Every time we passed something interesting, James told us about it, like buildings in the shape of sheep or a dog in Tirau. He said he likes doing something different every time he drives, so we had a 5 minute detour to Huka Falls.

At noon we got to Taupo and had a 40 min lunch break. James recommended a couple places where we could eat, because he knew what he was talking about. He liked eating and you could tell that when you looked at him. 😉

We left Taupo before 1 p.m. and went along the eastern shore of Lake Taupo. It’s the largest lake by surface area in New Zealand and the view from the town on the lake and the mountains behind it was astonishing! I took some pictures on my phone from the bus, but they are worthless. We had the lake right behind our windows and this is Motutaiko, an island where Te Rauparaha. hid himself when British troops wanted to kill him during 19th century’s wars. When they went away, Te Rauparaha jumped out of his shelter in the ground and composed Ka Mate haka, which is now performed by the All Blacks before their matches.

We left the lake behind, crossed winding roads in the mountains and entered Central Plateau still having the mountains on our right and Mt Ruapehu, the largest active volcano in New Zealand, which played Mt Doom in The Lord of the Rings.

James didn’t stop entertaining the passengers. This time the safety features were read by one of the passengers, a Canadian and they were in a rhyming form. Then the driver announced a karaoke competition to make that trip less boring. He had some chocolate bars and if anyone would like to sing something, there was a free mic for him or her. You can guess that no one came up to him, so he said he’d just found out that one couple had their fifth wedding anniversary and he played a song “Happy Anniversary” by Little River Band. One older Maori woman went to wish them all the best (the couple was sitting in the front), so James forced her to sing something. She did, something like a happy birthday, but more anniversary version. She got a round applause for her performance.

After a while, when no one wanted to compete with her, she wanted her chocolate bar, but James said that she couldn’t win it, because it wasn’t a competition as long as there was no other contestant. She said he was ‘meanie’, ‘mean as’ and at least she was younger than him and more beautiful (which wasn’t true, in my opinion). All that exchange with the driver was of course funny and made us all laugh again.

In the meantime we passed waving Keven, a local celebrity who always stands by the road and bus and train drivers know him and every time they drive pass his house and see him, they horn and ask the passengers to wave him back, so we did. Keven had a plastic red bag in his hand, I guess to not to miss him. He looked very happy to see us all waving.

The Canadian joined the karaoke competition and sang with his beautiful deep voice “The River/I Will Sail My Vessel” by Garth Brooks. I’ll never forget the sound of his voice, the view from my window and the joy of travelling by that bus.

The same Canadian sang one more song but I think he never got his chocolate bar, because the Maori lady snatched it when she was getting on the bus after one of the coffee breaks.

When I saw we were getting closer to Wellington, I went to James and asked him how he was doing. He was still in his great mood and replied how he could help me. When I reminded him about the hostel, he said it wouldn’t be a problem as he was taking three more people near it. All the passengers left the bus at the train station and the four of us got on again. On the way to the city centre we were telling jokes and I totally didn’t feel I had spent the last 9 hours on the bus.

I WAS IN WELLINGTON!!! When I took my baggage and waved goodbye to James with all the blessings, I decided to put on a warmer jacket and leave my hat in a bag, because the wind was too strong to have it on my head. Windy City. Walking along the street I saw on my right The Embassy Theatre, where Return of the King had its premiere. Further down the street there was Bats Theatre, where Flight of the Conchords and Taika Waititi used to perform regularly. And all that right across the street of my hostel! My fangirl heart just exploaded.

The YHA hostel in Welly was awesome! I was sorry I was staying there just one night, because the location was perfect and it was clean, quiet and everything you’d want from a hostel and more.

In my room, there was waiting another surprise. I was sharing it with a girl I had passed in Waitomo on my way to Junohall! She said, she remembered me with my bag. I remember asking one Asian girl how far it was, but I didn’t remember her face. And now we met in Wellington in the same room after three days of going to completely different places. She was from South Korea and going to South Island the next day. We had a good chat, but I had to control the time, because later in the evening I was seeing a friend from Norway who is on working holiday visa and has been living in Wellington since January.

We met up at the Bucket Fountain. When I found Cuba Mall, I had again that surreal feeling that it wasn’t really happening and I was just seeing it thanks to Google Map or Earth, but the quality of the picture was much better and I could hear the fountain spilling water in crazy directions, live music from pubs and smell coffee from bars and different dishes from many restaurants. A. took me to Midnight Espresso, where I tasted flat white almost as good as the one in London. Opposite the café, there was Slow Boat Records, where you can get any album you want. The Phoenix Foundation had their free gig there in December 2009.

Maybe it will sound a bit silly, but when you’re far away from those places and just hear about them, you may think they don’t really exist until you finally get there. They do exist. They fully exist.

Waitomo Caves

MONDAY, 5th Sept.

That day was a great escape from the noise of the city and discovering a quiet rural side of New Zealand.

I was at the InterCity coach station at 7 a.m. (it’s behind the SkyTower), because I had read a brochure about their FlexiTrips and decided to buy a 20-Trip Pass for $369 (about $18 per trip wherever I go with them, while a single ticket from Auckland to Waitomo cost me $46). I was a little confused about Magic Bus’s and other similar companies’ passes and I wanted to be more flexible and independent in my travels AND InterCity can take you practically almost everywhere in New Zealand, so I thought it was a good deal. It’s valid 12 months starting from the day of the first booking and I’ll definitely do some rounds around the country during my 3-month stay.

I didn’t feel I was in New Zealand until I got on a bus and a bus driver introduced himself. His name was John and then for the whole trip, which lasted about 2hrs 40min, he talked about what we see on the left and right, adding some comments and stories seasoned with Kiwi humour. Later I found out that John was from Hamilton and how much tax his wife and him had to pay for their cars. I felt I was in FOTC’s Bus Driver’s Song.

I recorded about 11 min of his story about Auckland.

When we left Auckland, going south we drove into the land of Waikato River and many lakes and swamps and we had to go through thick mist for a good couple kilometres. It was hard to see even the sun!

When we finally left the grey land behind, I could see Waikato and The King Country. It looked like Shire from LOTR. Everywhere you looked were green hills dotted with cows and horses, the sky was blue and the sun was shining. John continued the stories about Waikato War between British and Maori and how some Maori tribes got together and elected a king, Potatau Te Wherowhero in 1850s, just like the Brits had their Queen, to represent them in defending their land. If you want to read more, google “Kingitanga”. Maori central tribes still have their king, he’s a descendant of Potatau, lives in Hamilton and is a truck driver.

The bus dropped me off at the village centre. It was actually a few buildings along the main road where you could book a cave tour, there was an information centre and Waitomo General Store. I took this photo later that afternoon.

A local was sitting outside Cave World drinking coffee. I asked him which way was to Junohall (YHA hostel) and he said that about 20 min walk back down the road. When he saw my back he asked if I had kitchen ‘n’ sink there. It’s not that big! Well… a bit bigger than a regular backpacker’s, but I’m away from home for at least four months and the weather has been so different between Australia and New Zealand so far.

I went to an iSite centre (every village, town and city in New Zealand has its iSite website and a Visitor Information centre) and they called the hostel to ask if they could pick me up, but no one was available, so I had to go there by myself. The first 10 min weren’t that hard, because there was a lane for pedestrians, but then it ended and I had to convert my bag into a rucksack, which weight 20 kg. When I was out of my breath, I finally saw the hostel. It was on a hill.

The hostel was nothing like a big 7-level Nomads monster in Auckland. It was a nice, wooden house or rather hall. One part of it was a spacious common room, dining room and kitchen (no free coffee and tea, though 😦 ) and the other part were rooms, toilets and showers. I could hear nothing but birds and horses outside. I sunk into my bed and had some rest.

After about half an hour, I was ready to start planning. I booked a ticket from Otorohanga to Hamilton for the next day, and then a shuttle from Waitomo to Otorohanga, because there aren’t any coaches running from Waitomo to Hamilton. Then I had to decide which company should take me to the caves. There was no problem with booking on the phone, they’ve got freephone numbers 0800 and they were ready to take me on the same day. You’re not going to read any exciting stories about blackwater rafting, because I wear glasses and this is an economy trip, so I just wanted to see some glow worms. I had at least three options: CaveWorld ($45 for 1 ¼ hr tour, probably visiting just one cave), Spellbound ($67.50 for 3 ¼ hr including a shuttle to and from two caves, and tea, coffee and biscuits) and Discover Waitomo ($65 for Twin Cave Combo: Glowworm Caves and Aranui Cave). Although the coffee and biscuits sounded tempting, I decided to go with Discover Waitomo. I booked a tour at 3 p.m. and had enough time to eat something and have a stress free walk back to the village.

This time I saw things I didn’t notice while pulling and carrying my bag. The area was so pretty!

I stopped by at the General Store and ordered flat white. I also saw that they sell ice cream and had my first hokey pokey ice cream from Rush Munro’s. The flavour is creamy vanilla with honeycombs, which they call hokey pokey. While eating an ice cream, I had a visitor.

I gave him so much wafer that he had enough and flew away.

Then I head off to the caves. Discover Waitomo were right behind the village and you can’t miss them.

At about 3 o’clock a guide came by car and picked me up to Aranui Cave. There were already a few people waiting at a car park near the cave. The deeper we were going into the cave, the prettier it was and this was the last part of that cave.

In the meantime I got to know another traveller. She was from California, also a teacher going through a hard time and having two weeks off. After about ten minutes we found so many things in common and understood each other’s problems that when we got to another cave with glow worms, we couldn’t stop talking! Oh, and the glow worms were just beautiful! We got on a boat, our guide turned the light off, we looked up and there were big turquoise stars above us, which were of course glow worms. Everyone was quiet and you could hear only water drops in the cave. The guide quietly led us out of the cave and at the end we could take pictures, but it was rather impossible to do it. It was too dark for my camera and if you used flash, you just took a picture of the ceiling of the cave and some ugly worms similar to mosquitoes.

My American friend went back to Rotorua and me to my hostel. I ate dinner watching the news and I think that was the time when it was getting to me that I’m in New Zealand. I usually watched NZ news on YouTube and now I had them on TV.

At about 7 p.m. it got dark and I went for 1 hour walk. The sky was so clear and I could see the stars like the glow worms I had seen earlier that day. When I got back to the hostel, people had just started watching “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” on video. I was grinning when I saw the scene with Bret McKenzie. What a great finale of a great day!