Nestled in the southwestern most part of the Pacific Ocean, New Zealand might as well be in another world. In many ways, it is.
My time on the North Island was centered around baseball, but I did plenty of exploring away from Auckland’s ball fields.
Rangitoto Island – one of New Zealand’s 90 dormant volcanoes – featured unique lava caves and dense vegetation, and made for a fun trip.
Thanks to my host family's connections, I spent a day as a Kiwi firefighter. Being amongst those who actually do fight fires and understanding some of the daily challenges they encounter, really put their profession in perspective for me. The hose and hatchet are no tools for the weak!
Until I lived in Auckland I had never seen black sand. On multiple occasions I visited Piha and Muriwai, two of New Zealand's renowned beaches. Over time, huge amounts of volcanic sand mixed with magnetic iron oxide ash to form the distinctive black sand beaches on Auckland's west coast.
Witnessing my first cricket match at Eden Park was certainly memorable. Under construction for the 2012 Rugby World Cup, Eden Park wasn’t in it’s best form, but neither was the home team. In the One-Day International event against the Australian Baggy Greens, the Black Caps didn’t fare too well. A college classmate from Baylor University – who lived in Auckland at the time – gave me the low-down on how the sport was played. Cricket’s similarities to baseball were abundant, so I could watch and follow it relatively easily.
New Zealand’s national sport, rugby, was another new game for me. Watching beasts of human beings collide – without pads – repeatedly in an effort to secure an oblong-shaped ball, was quite amusing. Growing up watching (American) football, the principles were similar, but rugby’s complexities took a while to grasp. The Super 14 atmosphere at North Harbour Stadium was distinctive, and the Blues and put on a good show. Kiwis sure do love their rugby.
One Tree Hill provides beautiful panoramic views across Auckland and beyond, but the trek up to the top is just as noteworthy. More abundant than human beings, sheep gather in droves and munch away at the grass on One Tree Hill. I didn’t have to pinch myself; I knew I wasn’t on a farm, so it definitely came as a surprise that, in the middle of a city of 1.4 million people, sheep would be roaming amongst locals and tourists alike. In New Zealand, there are an estimated 60 million sheep. The country's (human) population is just three million. This is indeed bahhhfling.
One of the North Island’s hidden gems – almost literally – is the Coromandel Peninsula. A two-hour drive from Auckland, ‘the Coromandel’ as locals call it, boasts some of the most breathtaking views the North Island has to offer. I stayed in Pauinui, one of the Coromandel’s quaint beach towns, and enjoyed the short junkets to pristine, white-sand beaches with no humans in sight. Such isolation was incredible. At Cathedral Cove I learned how to body surf and ducked through caves right on the ocean. My hike up Mount Paku gave me a true perspective of the diverse landscape of the Coromandel. Crystal-clear ocean water covering billions of fine, white grains of sand created the foreground for the Coromandel Range stringing along the coast.
I have often been asked where, during all of my travels, I’ve come across the nicest people. My answer, without hesitation, is New Zealand. Welcoming and pleasant, Kiwis made a memorable impression on me. It will be hard for that to change.