Lord of the Lambs

NZ14

New Zealand’s North Island – December 2003

We hit the road, leaving Taupo, and Christmas, behind us. Destination: Napier.

NZ07

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.

NZ08

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.

NZ09

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.

NZ10

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.

NZ12

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.

NZ13

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.

NZ11

A New Zealand Christmas

NZ2

Rotorua, New Zealand – December 24, 2003

My husband and I smell like the bowels of Hell. Yesterday, we soaked for too long in the mud baths at Hell’s Gate. When we got back to the hotel, I did a load of laundry, tossing our bathing suits in with everything else. Instead of washing out, however, the sulphur smell seeped into our other clothes.

In New Caledonia, where we currently live, it’s the hottest time of the year. Santa makes an appearance at the beach and Christmas music is blasted in the shops and over the airwaves, but it’s just too hot and sunny to be taken seriously. Surely in New Zealand, a normal country, there would be a more vibrant holiday atmosphere.

“I think we were mistaken,” I say as we drive down the main street on the way out of town. The Return of the King has just been released, and Lord of the Rings fever is everywhere. Except for a cringeworthy LoTR jewelry store ad (This Christmas buy her something PRECIOUS!), the shop windows and streets are unadorned.

“Finally, there is more Christmas ambiance in Nouméa,” my husband says.

I crack the window to air our stench out of the car. I’ve had a headache since the soak at Hell’s Gate.  I wonder if you can overdose on sulphur.

On our way to Taupo, we visit the Waimangu Volcanic Valley, which is open every day. The parking lot is almost empty. We have the walking trail to ourselves. These are the only signs that it’s Christmas Eve. Steam seeps out of the rocky cliffs and rises from the stream that flows from Frying Pan Lake.

NZ1

I pause before geothermal masterpieces – Inferno Crater, Marble Terrace, and Bird’s Nest Terrace, admiring their gemlike colors and phantasmagoric designs. Trying to ignore the ominous pounding in my skull. My vision blurs, giving the scenery a trippy glaze. Sensations are so much more intense when you have a migraine.

NZ3

NZ4

“I can’t stand this smell anymore,” my husband says.

I nod. “Let’s head to Taupo. I need some fresh air.”

Just outside of Taupo, we stop at Huka Falls. The crisp, clean air dissipates some of the fog from my brain. Dark clouds hang low in the sky. The locals say that it’s always rainy and cold during the holidays, and then summer arrives right afterwards.

NZ6

We are alone at the lookout point. The only sound is the percussive churn of the water. My disappointment fades away. This is more joyous than the gaudy tinsel, twinkling lights, overbearing music, and fervent cheer of Christmases past, many of which I can’t recall even if I tried.

NZ5