Getting to New Zealand isn’t easy. First of all, it is on the opposite side of the planet, which means it will surely take quite awhile to get there. On top of that, you have to cross the international date line, which throws off the entire space-time continuum. After all that, they have to decide whether or not you (and all of your bags) contain any items that might jeopardize their isolated, island ecosystem. For my mom and me, all of that meant leaving Los Angeles on the evening of December 13, flying to Fiji (where we landed on the morning of December 15), enduring a short layover, and then hopping back on another plane heading south for Auckland. Once we landed there, we had to collect our bags and go through customs.
Customs is a big deal in New Zealand. They want to know if you have any dirt on your shoes, any bugs rolled up in your tent, any animal products, any food. In short, they want to know everything about what you have packed for your vacation. You better think ahead though, because not declaring any of those potentially catastrophic items will land you an instantaneous $400 fine. What a way to start your trip!
As snaked our way through the customs line, we inched closer and closer to the agent. I started to wonder: Would they let me keep my wooden toothbrush? Would I be able to keep my Burt’s Bees chapstick? Would they take my sleeping bag? My tent? My trekking poles? It was enough to make me more than a little paranoid as the customs agent asked me if I had anything to declare. She asked us a few quick questions and then pointed down yet another line, where yet another agent would examine the most suspicious items: my tent and our trekking poles. Luckily, they both passed with flying colors, although the woman searching our bags seemed skeptical that my minimalist tarp would actually be of any use as a shelter.
Almost ninety minutes after we had deplaned, we marched out of customs with all of our gear. And who did we find there? A smiling face holding a sign that said “Miharo Farms.” During my recent stay in Connecticut, a family friend had connected me to Ross, the caretaker and owner of Miharo Farm, located just outside of Auckland. After exchanging emails, he had offered to pick us up from the airport and to host us at Miharo. Our bodies and minds were so fried from seventeen hours of travel that a quiet night in the countryside with friendly folk sounded absolutely perfect. There was no way either of us was ready to drive on the opposite side of the road.
Luckily, Ross did the driving for us. As he did, we peppered him with questions about New Zealand’s flora, political systems, land management policies, local customs, taxes, and so much more. He patiently and excitedly answered them each in turn, interweaving pieces of his own life’s story into each answer. As we listened, familiar signs whirred past the windows: McDonald’s, Burger King, and Starbucks. They were, however, often lost among the vibrant and unfamiliar signs for local businesses and industries. New Zealanders may speak english, but it is most definitely a foreign country.
Within an hour, we had exchanged the airport’s strip malls for the wooded and pastured hills of Whitford on the southeast outskirts of Auckland. Our car flew around tight curves and over steep hills, allowing us fleeting glances at the landscape that surrounded us. It was impassably contoured and impossibly green. I couldn’t help but equate it to the rural wonderland that Peter Jackson had created when he designed his set for the Shire. As we zipped along, Ross updated us on the local land management projects in Whitford, showing us new housing developments and conservation areas. Then, all of the sudden, we turned off onto a gravel road, crossed a wooden bridge, and began climbing towards Miharo Farm.
Disclaimer: Before I begin talking about Miharo, I must apologize for my lack of photographic evidence to back up my claims of beauty and serenity. I didn’t bring a camera with me for either of our jaunts around the property, not even my iPhone. I didn’t even think to take any pictures of Ross or Chris! Maybe it was my travel addled brain letting me down or simply a lapse in judgement. Either way, I will rectify it when we return to Auckland at the end of our trip. There will be photos. I promise.
Our visit to Miharo began with a cup of tea with Ross and Christina (Chris), but transitioned quickly into a rollercoaster ride in Ross’s extremely surefooted SUV. Ross effortlessly navigated the nimble Suzuki SUV arond tight, wooded corners, into steep valleys, and across open fields as he showed us around the 200 acre property. All the while, Mack, a one-year old Huntaway dog, bounded along beside us, delighted by the excuse for adventure and exercise. As he drove, Ross narrated the story of Miharo. He pointed out types of trees, outlining why he had planted them there. He called out land features, explaining how they migth affect future development or the stability of the land. The undulating contours and expressive groves of trees that punctuate any view of Miharo would take your breath away, but exploring them with their passionate caretaker added an entirely new level of intimacy.
With our tour complete, we started to settle into our rooms, eyeing the bed hopefully every few minutes. It wasn’t long, however, before we started to talk with Chris about our plans for the North Island. Like Ross, she grew up in and around Auckland and has local knowledge about many the places that we were hoping to explore. Out came the maps, wine, and notebooks, the planning had begun. When dinner rolled around, we already had a full itinerary and library to take with us into our campervan. Then, the inevitable happened: we crashed. All of the sudden, my eyes began to droop and I looked over at my mom and, seeing the same, knew it was time for bed. Our travel had finally caught up with us.
Tomorrow, we would meet our campervan and head north.