On the road again...Sunday morning was an early start. Earlier for me as I had to do a donut run, having opted for four dozen donuts as a bus treat from my predict the Test XV winnings. Spotted Ben Te'o out for a morning jog as I carried the boxes up the hill, I did feel a little guilty at the thousands of calories in my arms!
Hit the road at 10am for Taupo once again, via Hobbiton. I'm not a Tolkien fan and haven't seen the films (though I did struggle through the Hobbit as a younger person) but even I was blown away by the set. The landscape is absolutely stunning and the detail of the hobbit holes and the flora and fauna was mindblowing. That the massive set covered only 1% of the farm it was based on was also staggering, though I'm guessing the 13,000 sheep on the farm needed the space. Having toured the set and been filled in on some of the filming stories for both the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, the tour culminated in a complimentary drink in the Green Dragon. We were absolutely blessed with the weather, our tour was dry but no sooner were we back on the coach when the heavens opened with yet another monsoon-esque shower.
Halfway around Hobbiton a recent arrival to our group asked me if I worked in Dublin. I said I did. He asked if I'd taken redundancy from one job, and walked straight into another, which I did. He asked if I remembered a taxi ride in June 2016 where I was so excited having booked the trip, and the driver had questioned me about the costs and logistics. Again the answer was yes. Turns out I was talking to that exact taxi driver, who had been so taken by my enthusiasm that he'd booked himself! Made my day!
On to Taupo again, a different hotel this time. A quiet night relatively speaking, dinner and very few beverages and an early-ish night. There's only so much burning the candle at both ends you can do!
Monday was our last long drive of the trip, we weren't sad to see the end of the one night stays that had punctuated the past fortnight but at the same time, the coach was one of the regular sources of fun. Our wonderful Maori driver Ricky would be leaving us after three weeks too that was one of the major characters of the tour who would be with us no more. Another early start as we were Wellington bound, today via the New Zealand Museum of Rugby in Palmerston North.
The Museum is relatively small but definitely worth the stop. Probably the highlight for me was the Munster v All Blacks programme, proudly displayed in the 1970s section but there really was a treasure trove of rugby memorabilia from over the years. Fascinating too to learn about racism in New Zealand rugby, some more about that Springbok Tour in 1981 and some of our party had great fun with the tackle bag, kicking and scrum machine interactive exhibits, though they did result in some interesting bruises!
On to Wellington, well we're actually staying in Lower Hutt, a suburb about 12 minutes on the train from the centre of the City. Wellington is a bit like Cardiff in that the accommodation available in the city itself is in no way adequate for the capacity of the stadium. To be honest I think the little bit of distance is no harm at this stage, an opportunity to slow down for a while.
The good folks of RTI had secured a VIP card for us for Wellington and for Queenstown, this gives us discounts on food and beverages in selected outlets. So Monday night we headed to the Lower Hutt venues for food and a drink or two. The charming thing about here is that there is a cluster of 4 venues included but you can order food from one, sitting in another, and it was brought to you. Not a concept I've encountered before but sitting in the sports bar, having pizza (possibly the best pizza I've ever had) delivered from the Italian restaurant was perfect!
Tuesday arrived, game day. Our last midweek game of the tour, how did it come around so fast? A gang of us headed into the city around lunchtime. We decided to investigate our pre-game venue, having stopped at traffic lights to try and work out where we were going, a kindly Kiwi asked if she could helped, turned out she worked in the venue so we followed her!
I opted for lunch in the venue, the value was incredible and the food was very good. pre-match session always goes so fast, though there was time for yet another rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody. The newest arrivals were bemused by the vigour and passion the song was belted out with by some of the Kiwi gang, perhaps expecting one of the traditional rugby anthems.
My rugby friend from home joined us for a few hours, having traveled independently from Auckland. I'm pretty good at independent travel but having spent four weeks on the road, I'm convinced that for a trip like this, a tour (with the right agent) is the way to do it if you can. But choosing the right agent is important, I've heard a few horror stories from other tourists in the past few weeks, like the company that didn't secure accommodation in one of the South Island venues, resulting in 4+ hour drives each way to and from the game.
The game, happened. After 8 games you should be used to me saying something along the lines of that! Disappointing to throw away a lead like we had, one moment of madness proved very costly, but at least it wasn't a loss.
Westpac stadium is a great venue to watch rugby in, the arrival of the game ball by helicopter was spectacular, no Haka today. Have to say though, the stadium is a nightmare to exit. I remember meeting one of the chief architects of the new Croke Park in Paris at a 6 Nations game and he had been meeting with the team behind Stade de France to discuss designs that facilitated evacuation in minutes in the case of an emergency. Not sure whether it was just for this game but it seemed as if at least half the stadium was funneled through a single exit. It was good natured but the thoughts of what might happen crush wise were there an actual emergency occurred to all of us. Will be interesting to see if it's the same for the Test on Saturday.
On the drive back from the stadium, our host informed us that we had travelled over 4,300km by road on the trip. Didn't feel like it!
Some people retired after the game but some of us just didn't have that sense. Had a fascinating chat with Ricky about musical theatre, last thing I expected was that our driver who would still pass for an in form second row would have spent time on stage in Grease, Cabaret and Anything Goes!
The hotel bar shut at 1am, the more sensible of the night owls went to bed then but FOMO is a killer. The rest of us retired to the lobby and a number of bottles of wine appeared, along with a large bag of crisps and a bag of Haribo smurfs. Poor Pickles, the hotel cockatoo, didn't know what hit him as we had two more hours of craic in the lobby. Two of our rugby legends appeared late into the night, one went straight to bed, the other devoured the crisps before noting that several of us were in pjs (it was 2am and we were doing laundry!) before they too hit the sack. 3am arrived very quickly and we gave up and went to bed (laundry dry and folded!).
Wednesday was a lie in day, he have five nights in Lower Hutt so the opportunity to take a down day and not pack it with sightseeing was welcome. Hung out with some of the gang in the afternoon before ending up back in our Lower Hutt venue for dinner, drinks and the weekly table quiz. Team Kiwi tourists could have won but on some questions it may have been a "too many cooks situation". Still we were happy with our $75 drinks voucher prize for coming second. Have to mention here our oracle of rugby, geography and random stuff, a delightful Welsh gentleman. What he doesn't know about rugby really isn't worth knowing (unless it's the out half who scored the Blues' try against the Lions!)
And now it's Thursday, on the way back from our Martinborough wine tour. This was an optional extra and rather a few of us did it. It was the first activity for us since the Haka tour arrived that had a mixture of Kiwi, Maori and Haka tourists so there was an opportunity to mingle outside of a game day scenario. Four vineyards, six wines at each, a lovely elevenses and lunch, both of which factored in my cheese allergy. It's been a fun day. It's my roommate's birthday so bubbles were required and enjoyed at lunch. Their house bubbles were branded "La Michelle", it was surely meant to be?
Tonight we've been invited by another local rugby club to join them for food and drinks, so much so that they've laid on a coach to bring us there, really looking forward to that.
Second test is looming too, team is out. Not totally enamoured with it but it is what it is and we're here to support the Lions and so we shall. At least 48 hours of fun to be had first. Bring it on!