New Zealand’s North Island – December 2003
We hit the road, leaving Taupo, and Christmas, behind us. Destination: Napier.
As we near the coast, the clouds recede and finally it feels like summer should feel. We open the windows wider and let the warm breeze air out the sulfur smell which has clung to our clothes since Rotorua. The streets of Napier, like those in Rotorua and Taupo, are unadorned. In this part of the world, summer seems to take precedence over Christmas. Our hotel is the Masonic, one of the Art Deco gems that Napier is famous for. Our room overlooks the stained glass sign. The room is spotless and renovated, but a faint white haze hangs in the air. The veil of guests past. Napier is a strange place – the water beckons, but the tides are too dangerous for swimming. The uninviting black gravel beach clashes with the pristine Art Deco buildings.
It’s a four and a half hour drive from Napier to Wellington. The road is eerily vacant, except for trucks crammed full of sheep. New Zealand is volcanoes and coastline and Hobbits, but sheep is what I will remember. My husband mutters to himself in annoyance and tries to pass. But when he does, we find ourselves behind more such trucks. And so on.
While we’re in Wellington, I hope to see The Return of the King, which premiered there a couple of weeks ago. I voice my wish to my husband, speaking in French. He’s never read the books, so he knows the film only as the third part of Le Seigneur des Anneaux, Lord of the Rings.
I nod my head towards the truck in front of us. “Le Seigneur des Agneaux,” I giggle. Lord of the Lambs.
“Le Saigneur des Agneaux,” my husband counters. Bleeder of the Lambs.
Such is the power of a single letter.
Wellington is abuzz with LoTR. Shop windows beckon one to buy a replica this or a limited edition that. You can dress up as your favorite character and have your photo taken. If I want to see The Return of the King at the Embassy Theatre, where the film had its world premiere, I must wait until tomorrow, December 31st. And I must go at three p.m. Two seats remain at this time and they are at opposite ends of the theatre. Otherwise I’ll have to wait until January 2nd, but we’ll be gone by then. My husband hasn’t seen the second part, and he wasn’t a fan of the first, so he tells me to book one ticket for myself.
When the time arrives, I settle myself amongst hundreds of others in front of the most massive movie screen I’ve ever seen. “The largest in the Southern Hemisphere”, I hear someone say. I’m not a movie theater person, so I don’t know if I should be impressed. I prefer to watch movies at home, where I can stretch out and be comfortable.
The lights go down. A huge cheer erupts from the crowd. The images flicker across the screen, immersing the audience in the action. For the entire three hours, no one moves. In the darkness, I nod to myself. This is the true cinematic experience.
While others are sleeping off their hangovers, we check out of the hotel and set out for Tongariro National Park. We were reasonable last night – just a couple of drinks, a slight buzz, to add some cheer as we watched how people in Wellington celebrate.
We drive along the coast road to Whanganui and then turn inland. The narrow road winds through green rolling hills.
The peaks of Mt. Ruapehu appear in the distance. On the green fields below it, sheep seem to sprout like woolly fungi.
And, later, regal Mt. Ngauruhoe stands guard as we pass by.
Two days later, our journey draws to an anticlimactic close in Auckland. I know this city from previous stopovers on my yearly trips from New Caledonia to the U.S. My husband has been here more times than he can remember. Our favorite pub, The Bog, is in Parnell, my favorite area of Auckland. It’s a small, pleasant city. A city for peaceful habitation or for stopovers on the way to someplace else. We break from routine and take a tourist cruise around the harbor. The sun’s rays pierce the thick clouds, staining my skin a painful red.