Two days after arriving in Auckland we experienced Anzac Day (April 25th), one of the country’s few major national holidays, and we celebrated the day by joining a dawn service and, later, hiking a volcano.
The first week in New Zealand passed in a blur of small successes that felt like major victories: We set up phone plans, and later, bank accounts. We visited unfamiliar grocery stores, wandered the Auckland War Memorial Museum (highly recommended), browsed campervans, and tried not to step into traffic as cars zipped past on the left side of the street. And we walked–my feet logged more miles (sorry, kilometers) that first week than they have in the past year.
(That’s something I love about traveling–your perception of what is a “walkable” distance magnifies. The world becomes bigger and more possible, and you become more capable. After all, what other choice do you have?)
Our first WWOOF host, Rob, had tipped us off to the Anzac Day Dawn Parade, a commemorative service at the War Memorial Museum and a rare occasion to participate in a Kiwi national holiday. So, by 5:30 am Tuesday morning, we were making the 25-minute trudge through the chilly, deserted streets towards the Auckland Domain, a dense city park where the memorial museum presides on a hilltop.
An enormous crowd, perhaps 100,000 people, was already gathered silently in the dark. We joined the outer edge, with a clear view of a large screen. The museum was bathed in red light, and the stars were out.
ANZAC Day commemorates veterans of all wars, but particularly the soldiers (Anzacs) who died at the Gallipolli Penninsula in World War I. New Zealand–a small country now, and a smaller country then–lost a devastating proportion of its population. Nearly every household lost a father, an uncle, a brother, a nephew, and/or a son; the effects were felt for years to come. Rob explained to us later that the aftermath was also key in forging a sense of Kiwi national identity, independent of British rule–who they were, and who they weren’t. What they would fight for, and what they wouldn’t.
Many in the crowd wore pins with paper poppies, a symbol of the day; poppies are said to have grown on the battlefield, among the dead. Hundreds of white crosses had been planted in front of the museum, each with a name and a poppy.
The mayor addressed the people in English and in Maori as the sky lightened; prayers were read and hymns were sung in both languages. Veterans and soldiers stood between raised flags, between trumpets and bagpipes. The tone was not celebratory, but somber and reverent; the emphasis was on rememberance (the day’s repeated phrase: “Lest We Forget”), and peace.
I’ve never heard a crowd so large remain so silent and attentive.
Dawn broke over the bay and hillside. We listened to the national anthem and a parting address, and the crowd dispersed.
Rob met us in front of the museum. He runs an awesome outdoor adventure group, Got to Get Out, and coordinates epic hikes all over the country. A large group of 20-30 people were getting together that afternoon to hike Rangitoto, a dormant volcanic island in the bay, and we planned to join.
We met the group at the ferry terminal; many of them were 20- or 30-something Aucklanders who were venturing onto Rangitoto for the first time on their holiday off work. A short ferry ride brought us to the island where we filed into pairs and lines, passing easy conversation as we tramped a well-marked track over jagged hunks of black volcanic rock, which clinked like glass and could slice you just as easily, heading onward and upward into the dense forest.
An hour and a half of hiking brought us to a sheltered bay with boats and sunbathers. Farther on, we passed the abandoned remains of an old war: a mine-testing site, cisterns and foundations left to crack in the sun, rusting machinery.
Then we hiked up. And up. And up. And then up some more. Up enough that I stopped thinking about the beauty of nature and the wonder of my location and became pretty single-minded about the sun and my shortness of breath and my empty stomach.
Until the summit, that is.
We ate lunch at the top, with a rest to enjoy the view. Going down (on a full stomach) was more fun, especially with a detour to explore the lava caves, narrow channels where lava forced its way through the crust 600 years ago.
We made it back to the base of the island with 30 minutes to spare before the 4 pm ferry, the last one of the day; the hike had lasted about six hours roundtrip. In between stretching, Rob asked us to go around the circle and name something we were grateful for. I said it might sound a little cliche, but I was grateful just to be there–this trip took a year of hard work and saving, and two days into our year traveling New Zealand, we were already enjoying a hike with a great group of people.
Even though we weren’t scheduled to begin WWOOFing with Rob for nearly another week, we made plans to rendevous a couple days later so we could join him for another Got to Get Out trip that weekend: the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, one of the best, most well-known day hikes in the country.
Because the trek was long (6-8 hours) through alpine conditions, we figured it would be smart and fun to do it with an experienced group. Just before heading out for the crossing, we also learned that the weather was expected to deteriorate in the mountains, which could prove tricky, even treacherous.
Turns out we were right on both counts.