Tongariro Alpine Crossing

South of Lake Taupo, a giant lake formed by a volcano about 27000 years ago, lies Tongariro National Park, home to Mt. Ngauruhoe AKA “Mt. Doom”. Considering its size and symmetrical conical shape, Peter Jackson decided this particular mountain should be used as the basis for Mordor’s volcano.


As a day trip from Taupo, we undertook the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a 19.4km trek lauded as one of the best day-hikes in New Zealand. The hike starts out easily enough, winding through marshy hills, but then suddenly gets serious with a climb up the side of Mt. Ngauruhoe and then into a large crater.

Not quite “the Dead Marshes”.
Jean LeCastor working his way up Mt. Ngauruhoe.

The walk through the crater is almost eerily flat. The day was rather foggy and grey, so we had to continuously check behind us to see if the summit of Mt. Doom would reveal itself.

Walking through the South Crater felt more like a hazy desert than a volcano.
Mt. Doom became much less intimidating when the rainbow showed up.

Climbing higher, we arrived at the highest point of the hike with a view of The Red Crater. With the barren rocky terrain, it was easy to see how this site would have been used to represent Mordor.

The Red Crater

Shortly after beginning the descent, one arrives at the Emerald Lakes and is treated to views of the rocky plains below.



Leaving the volcanic terrain, the hike then transitions back into bushy vegetation and eventually through a lush forest with lahar warnings. Unaware of what a lahar was, and whether or not it could chase us, we continued quickly to the end as advised.


Aching from the climb, our only other day in Taupo was spent relaxing, including a visit to the local hot springs to soothe our legs. This was also the day of the tragedy in Christchurch. It has been frustrating to reflect and accept that this disgusting hatred can exist anywhere. However, the immediate showing of love and support from the country  and the response of the prime minister have been hopeful.

Rotorua Smells

The main reason for our visit to Rotorua was to see the natural geothermal wonders of the area, but we always seem to forget about the sulphuric odour associated with such things.

The otherworldly views of a hydrogen sulphide-ridden landscape.

The highlight of our time in Rotorua was a visit to the Te Puia geothermal and cultural complex. Located on Maori land and operated by Maori people, Te Puia is home to Pohutu, the largest geyser in the Southern Hemisphere.


The area has seven active geysers and at least 65 geyser vents, along with bubbling mud pools and hot springs. At this location the Earth’s crust is only 5 km thick, so the nearby magma heats underground waterways and forces water and steam to the surface.

We had an excellent tour guide from the nearby Whakarewarewa village. The full name of the area is Tewhakarewarewatangaoteopetauaawahiao, meaning ‘the gathering place for the war parties of Wahiao’. While this name seems long, we were told the longest Maori word (and reportedly the longest word in the world) is 92 letters long, about three times longer than this one.

Attempted panorama of Maori war canoe.

We learned the Maori were drawn to the active geothermal areas not long after their arrival in this part of the world about 800 years ago. They used the steam vents for cooking and heating, and they maintained excellent skin thanks to the mud baths and alkaline water pools.

The Maori would plunge woven baskets filled with food into cooking pools like this.
Bubbling mud pool! Probably too hot for a bath.

Te Puia also includes a Maori cultural centre where young Maori can apprentice in wood carving, stone carving, weaving, or tattooing. Apparently all Maori tattoos are done free-hand and are customised to the tattooed person’s story. Finally, Te Puia houses a couple kiwis in a dark enclosure. We knew pretty much nothing about this bird before arriving in New Zealand. Turns out it’s a fluffy flightless nocturnal endangered bird with beady eyes.

Back in town, we took a stroll to Sulphur Point (smells as bad as it sounds), and on the way stopped at the Arawa War Memorial. Depicting King George V and a Te Arawa chief, it honours the 500 Te Arawa men who served in WWI, of whom 39 were killed.



Baggins! Shire!

The shrieks of Gollum and the soundtrack melody of The Shire filled our heads on our visit to The Hobbiton Movie Set. Located on an old family farm near Matamata, the area features 44 hobbit holes (including Bag End, residence of Bilbo and Frodo), the party tree, the water wheel, and of course The Green Dragon, home to “the only brew for the brave and true”.


While the family who owns the farm provided some tours after The Lord of the Rings films, it wasn’t until after The Hobbit films that the set became a major tourist attraction. This is because the set design for The Lord of the Rings used temporary materials and was torn down following production.¬† Seeing an opportunity for future tourism revenue, the team behind The Hobbit was persuaded to build a permanent Hobbiton set with excavated hobbit holes, doors and frames made from real wood, and a functioning pub.

Party field and Party Tree!
Jean LeCastor visits Bag End.

The tour guide guide pointed out the most famous hobbit holes and provided a few neat facts about the filming process. For example, in order to show the size difference between the hobbits and Gandalf, Sir Ian McKellen was filmed in front of hobbit holes built at 60% scale. The film crew had to be careful to never show hobbit holes of different sizes in the same shot. We also learned that many of the orcs were played by members of the New Zealand army, who also helped to excavate the site for set construction.

Home of Samwise Gamgee.

The tour finishes with a hobbit-sized mug of ale at The Green Dragon. They were quite light, but both the stout and amber ale were surprisingly tasty.

Kia Ora, Auckland!

Landing in New Zealand was a breath of fresh air, mostly in the literal sense. The sky was more blue than we had seen in weeks and the hills in the distance were clearly visible without the smog to which we had become accustomed.

Landing in New Zealand also meant a change in lifestyle – the Asian accommodation prices are now in the past so we slept in a hostel dorm for the first time since 2010 (just a 4-person dorm… we learned our lesson after attempting an 18-person dorm in Dublin). All was well and we met plenty of friendly travellers.

It did not take us long to find sheep in New Zealand.

On our first full day in Auckland we took the bus out to One Tree Hill, one of the more prominent volcanic hills in the area. The original tree was cut down by a settler in 1852 (possibly for firewood). Other trees were later planted and a single pine tree survived until 2000 when it was cut down by Maori activists. Nine more trees were planted at the summit in 2016 in collaboration with the Maori people, with the plan of eventually having a single survivor.

Next we walked to Mt. Eden, which features a large volcanic crater along with excellent views of central Auckland.

The crater of Mt. Eden and downtown Auckland in the background.
New Zealand War Memorial and the Auckland Museum.

We used the following day to explore the downtown core and walk along the piers. It turns out about a third of the country’s 4.8 million residents live here, so the city is more dense and built up than one might expect for New Zealand. We popped into one craft beer bar for a pint (which was excellent), but chose to stop at one given that pints typically go for $10-12 here.


There are giant freakin’ palm trees in Auckland. (Or regular-sized palm trees with hobbits… who knows.)

Our next couple days were relatively quiet due to large amounts of rain. We visited one art gallery, The Wallace Arts Centre, and were impressed by the local works on display. In particular we loved the drawings by Susan Te Kahurangi King, a self-taught artist who lost the ability to speak by the age of 8 and whose work evolved from surreal cartoon-like drawings to complex geometric patterns.

Feeling the need to sample Auckland’s nightlife, on Friday we decided to check out the Ding Dong Lounge. In memory of Keith Flint, the Prodigy singer who passed away last week, the bar was playing their tunes all evening (at least until the fans from the Red Hot Chili Peppers concert arrived post-gig). The bar had a good vibe, drawing in more punks than hipsters, and Dan was delighted to revisit his favourite Prodigy songs.



Power of Seoul

Seoul is a gigantic city with one of the most complex-looking metro systems we’ve had to navigate. Seriously, look at this:


Luckily our hostel was located in Hongdae by Hongik University on the Airport Express line. Of the places we’ve visited on this trip so far, Seoul seemed most similar to Canada – not least because of the near-freezing temperatures and bare trees. The city covers a huge area but it does not feel terribly dense. There are large sidewalks and streets, and in most neighbourhoods the buildings don’t rise more than a few stories. Also taking into consideration the amazing food, friendly and interesting youth culture, and a healthy level of respect for the rules (somewhere between Southeast Asia and Japan), the city seemed quite liveable.

On our first full day in South Korea we headed straight for its northern border to see the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). The tour starts with an introductory video featuring an oddly dramatic soundtrack and jumps quickly from the Korean war to a celebration of the beauty and wildlife of the DMZ, and then concludes “Until reunification, the DMZ will live on forever!!” We were able to visit one of the tunnels that North Korea had built in hopes of invading the South, and were given the opportunity to look into North Korea with binoculars to see the mostly empty (and in one case, fake) cities closest to the border.

The hills in the distance are located in North Korea. Though the view of the cities is mostly obstructed by the pan-Asian smog, the white dot at the base of the hills in the middle is a building in a real city in North Korea.

One of the main reasons for our visit to Seoul was to see Dan’s friend Isaac and for the two of them to perform a concert as half of their band The Vanishing Act (Lee and Gary could not make it to Seoul this time). Metal is not huge in Korea, but Isaac has made good friends in the local scene and plays in a few bands. His friend runs the local venue GBN Live House and was able to throw together a show to give The Vanishing Act a chance to make their first international appearance. Dan hadn’t touched a drum set since June 2018, and Isaac hadn’t played the songs since then either, but they pulled off a good set and even drew in enough of a crowd to get paid!

We used our remaining time in Seoul to do a bit more sightseeing and spend some more time with Isaac. We visited the Gyeongbokgung Palace, where a highschool student practising his English provided us with a free tour.

Jean LeCastor visits Seoul!

Next we wandered over to the Bukchon Hanok Village, and then to the dense shopping area of Myeongdong. We also visisted the Korean War Memorial museum and learned a ton about the evolution of the conflict between the North and South.

Limo formerly owned by Kim Il-sung, leader of North Korea from its formation in 1948 until his death in 1994. The museum stated that after this limo was abandoned in the South by Kim during the war, it was gifted to an American and it eventually ended up in a collector’s garage in New Jersey before returning to South Korea.

Naturally we ate a ton of Korean food while in Seoul. We enjoyed jjimdak (a saucy braised chicken dish served on glass noodles), bibimbap, gimbap (random meat and veggies rolled in rice and seaweed, looking like a sushi roll), chimaek (literally just fried chicken with beer), tteokbokki (stir-fried rice cakes in chili sauce with fish cakes), table BBQ, kalguksu (chopped noodle soup), and lots of kimchi!

Jjimdak – once finished with the chicken, the bowl of crispy fried rice is stirred into the remaining delicious sauce.

Eatin’ and Hikin’ in Hong Kong

It was immediately evident when we arrived in Hong Kong that it is very different from Southeast Asia. The Airport Express train was located incredibly close to the baggage carousels and sped us into the city in about a half hour. Taking the metro around the city was quite easy and the streets felt open and peaceful relative to some of the other cities we recently visited.

Hong Kong Island from the ferry.

Surrounded by green mountains, the dense city is quite built up but still has plenty of expertly landscaped parks and some beautiful temples. On our first full day we visited the Chi Lin Nunnery, which also had a variety of small rare tree species on display.

Next we wandered over to Kowloon Walled City Park. There are very few remains of the old complex and it’s difficult to imagine that the world’s most densely populated area once existed on what is now a peaceful park full of gardens, elegant pavilions, and water features.

The next morning we took the old tram up to Victoria Peak. It was cloudy and hazy throughout our time in Hong Kong, but we still appreciated the view of the city below. In the afternoon we visited the Hong Kong Space Museum – it’s quite small but admission only costs about $2 CAD and they had some very well designed exhibits to explain natural phenomena such as the Coriolis effect, aurora borealis, and the phases of the moon.

Hong Kong Park near the tram is home to lots of turtles!
View from Victoria Peak

We were lucky to stay with Wendy’s sister’s friend Danya who is currently teaching in Hong Kong. She did a fantastic job showing us around the city and bringing us to amazing restaurants, filling us to the brim with dumplings.


The most interesting experience was wandering up to the 8th floor of a random apartment building in Lan Kwai Fong (LKF, the clubbing district) to try Nepalese dumplings called momos – incredibly tasty. We ate at one location of Din Tai Fung, our very first Michelin star restaurant. Famous for its Taiwanese soup dumplings, the restaurant has become a large chain and they now have several locations on the West Coast of the US. We also tried Filipino fried chicken from the Jollibee chain… it seems each Asian country has its own take on deep fried poultry.

On our last day in Hong Kong we caught a bus to the southeast end of the island to hike the Dragon’s Back trail. The route runs along the rim of a chain of hills and provides excellent views of the bays to either side.

Jean LeCastor hikes the Dragon’s Back trail.
View from Dragon’s Back.

As we descended back into the city after our hike, we passed through a Hong Kong cemetery built right into the hillside, another example of the city’s efficient use of its limited space.




Hanoi and Cat Ba Island

After a few days in relatively quiet Hoi An, Hanoi felt particularly loud and busy. The narrow streets of the old quarter were packed with motorbikes throughout the day, though the area became more walkable at night. Each shop front or hotel seems to be about 15 ft wide, and each building may be several stories taller or shorter than its attached neighbours, lending a sort of haphazard atmosphere to the neighbourhood.

One of the most popular tourist activities in Hanoi is to see a water puppet performance. We caught one our first night and were very impressed by the complex movement of the puppets and the musicians playing traditional instruments such as the dan bau (a Vietnamese monochord). All dialogue and narration was in Vietnamese so we could not follow the subtleties of the plot, but could discern that there was a village that was quite bad at catching fish. (We do not have photos to share as we thought it impolite to take photos during a live performance. The older generations sitting around us did not show the same restraint.)

The next day we visited the Temple of Literature, a beautiful green space in the middle of the city. Within are 82 stone monuments sitting atop tortoises listing the names of those who successfully completed Confucian examinations between the 15th and 18th centuries. Today, students will come to the Temple of Literature to pray for good grades.

Entrance gate to the Temple of Literature
Stelae listing the names of those who successfully completed the Confucian examinations.

Next we visited the Hoa Lo Prison Museum, known by American POWs as the “Hanoi Hilton”. Most of the exhibits were devoted to the French occupation of the country and how the Vietnamese prisoners here maintained their revolutionary spirit despite their poor treatment – the prison was overcrowded, diseases spread frequently, and food was limited and poor quality. The portion of the museum dedicated to the American prisoners painted a much sunnier picture of prison life, quite different from the testimonials provided in the recent Ken Burns documentary about the war.

One of the more glaring examples of propaganda we saw in Vietnam.

Next we ventured out to Cat Ba Island and Lan Ha Bay, right next to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Ha Long Bay. Coming from Hanoi, Cat Ba Town was shockingly quiet – it seemed the town had far more hotel rooms and restaurants than necessary to accommodate the number of visitors. It could simply be a quiet time of year, but we thoroughly enjoyed the breathing room and lack of motorbike horns. For our one full day in the area, we caught a boat ride out into the bay and then spent the morning and afternoon kayaking between the giant limestone karsts, swimming in the lagoons, and paddling past the floating homes and fishing vessels.

View from Cannon Fort, located at one of the summits on Cat Ba Island.
Boat ride in Lan Ha Bay.
Floating homes and some fishing boats in Lan Ha Bay.

Our last night in Vietnam was spent at an airport hotel and we visited a nearby restaurant hoping to enjoy one last Vietnamese dinner. Wendy ordered fried noodles and veggies and was warned “no spaghetti in Vietnam”. Dan tried to order pho and then fresh rolls from the menu but was denied, and then ended up with a stir fry served with french fries instead of rice. We deduced that this restaurant has had some weird interactions with Westerners.