I reached Muscat just before midnight after a 7.5 hour flight from Zurich. There was about an hour long stop over in Dubai where most people got off and the cabin was noticeably less formal once the flight was resumed.
Downtown Dubai from the air
It seemed to take an age to get my 20 Omani Rial (about £35) "Visa On Arrival" and get through passport control but eventually I emerged in the Arrivals Hall to be met by my cousin Sally and her husband Dave.
My visit coincided with a one date only visit by the National Symphony Orchestra from America to the new Royal Opera House in Muscat.
The Royal Opera House Muscat
The building is stunning architecturally with no expense spared, obviously an attempt to get a bit of kudos over the neighbouring gulf states! The entrance hall feels particular opulent and many people wanted their photo taken by the bottom of the main staircase.
In Muscat the Royal Opera House is some where to be seen and mingling amongst the audience waiting to go in with us we saw UK TV presenter Michael Parkinson.
Main Staircase at the Royal Opera House Muscat
Me on the steps of the Royal Opera House Muscat
Sally and Dave at the Royal Opera House Muscat
Although they were not so keen on photos being taken in the main auditorium it was equally stunning and we had a box right next to the stage, probably the best seats in the house although it felt we were a bit on show!
The Auditorium of the Royal Opera House Muscat
The Stage at the Royal Opera House Muscat from our Box next to the Stage
The conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra was Christoph Eschenbach and they performed Beethoven's Egmont Overture and Mozart's Turkish Concerto in the first half with Dan Zhou on violin. For the second half they played Brahms's Symphony No. 2 in D Major. The acoustics were brilliant and from where we were sat we could see every section of the Orchestra.
The big park near the centre of Auckland is called "The Domain" and is the site of yet another currently inactive volcano (called Pukekaroa) whose crater is now used for sports fields (there's got to be a cliche there somewhere!). Dominating it all is the Auckland Museum, an iconic building that looks like a Greek Temple that also serves as the Auckland War Memorial, an approach I have seen adopted in several other New Zealand towns as well.
The volcano's crater at the Domain is now used as a sports ground!
Me stood outside the Auckland War Memorial Museum
Looking down on the Grand Foyer of the Auckland Museum
The ground floor of the Museum is dedicated to Maori Culture with the impressive Maori Court containing amongst other things a Maori Meeting Room, Store House and a large War Canoe. The Maori arrived in New Zealand (called Aotearoa in Maori) about 1000 years ago from Polynesia. Meeting Houses are at the heart of every Maori marae (village) and are full of symbolism of the ancestors. There are protocols that need to be followed before a stranger is allowed to enter a marae (non Maori are called pakeha).
The Maori Court at the Auckland Museum
Maori Meeting House - complete with posing Maori warrior!
Inside the Maori Meeting House
Large Maori Pataka (Storehouse)
Maori War Canoe
The highlight of the Maori Court was the Cultural Performance, after being greeted and taken into a small theatre we were given an explanation and display of traditional Maori dances. The most famous Maori dances for women are with tethered weights known a Poi. There is also the Ti Raku where a stick is thrown from dancer to dancer, this is the basis of many children's games and it is considered bad luck to drop the stick! However the most famous Maori dance of all is the Haka War Dance and this was used to close the performance.
The Ladies of the Maori Dance Troupe prepare to do the Poi
Maori Poi Dance
Maori Ti Raku Stick Dance
Haka War Dance
The next floor of the museum was devoted to nature and as the Kiwi bird that symbolises the country is nocturnal I (as it turned out wrongly) assumed the stuffed specimen I saw here would be the only one I would see in New Zealand. Also covered on this floor were the volcanoes and earthquakes that have moulded the country's landscape. This included a room that looked like a normal Auckland suburban lounge with a patio door looking out onto the bay and a news channel being broadcast on the TV in the corner. The news follows the emergence of a new volcano in the harbour that can be seen through the patio door and then as it erupts the cloud moves towards you and the floor of the room shakes mimicking an eruption and earthquake - definitely one for the kids (including older kids!).
A stuffed Kiwi on the Natural History Floor of the Auckland Museum
The Earthquake Lounge in the Auckland Museum
The top floor of the museum is devoted to New Zealand's military history and emergence as a nation through the loss and suffering of war. There were galleries covering every conflict New Zealand has been involved in since the Maori Wars of the 19th Century with particular reverance to WWI and WWII including a WWII Hall of Memories where the names of the fallen of Auckland are inscribed on the wall.
World War I Field Gun at the Auckland Museum
World War II Hall of Memories at the Auckland Museum
World War II Field Gun from the Italian Campaign in the Auckland Museum
Pretty much Number 1 on my list of places to visit in New Zealand was the Hobbiton Movie Set and Air New Zealand conveniently had The Hobbit as their inflight movie on the way over from Perth. First stop was the local town of Matamata with its hobbit hole inspired tourist information centre and "Welcome to Hobbiton" sign in the Main Street. We then drove up to the movie set itself which occupies a few acres on a large 1250 acre sheep farm originally identified by the film producers when they flew over it in a helicopter.
The tourist information centre in the local town Matamata is built like a hobbit hole
Me sat in a Gandalf shaped seat on the main street in Matamata, the nearest town to the movie set
The tour began with a walk down Gandalf's Cutting to the first of 37 hobbit holes on the set. At the start of the Lord of the Rings they made Frodo look smaller riding beside Gandalf in the cart down this cutting by using a 12 year old boy as his double. We then passed the Scarecrow that Bilbo runs past when he announces that he is "going to have an adventure" at the start of The Hobbit.
Gandalf's Cutting on the way down into Hobbiton
Hobbit Hole by Gandalf's Cutting
A scarecrow guarding a field in Hobbiton
We then began our climb upto Bag End where Bilbo and Frodo lived, stopping on the way to have our photo taken in a hobbit hole. All of the hobbit holes on the set are actually only a few feet deep as all the internal shots are taken at movie stages elsewhere.
Me in the doorway of a Hobbit Hole
Classic view up to Bag End from the Party Field
The exception is Bag End itself which is the largest and highest of all the hobbit holes but even Bag End is only a room deep. The views everywhere were amazing, so much so it didn't feel like a movie set at all. Indeed when the Lord of the Rings was completed in 1997 they began demolishing the set almost immediately to return the land to the farmer as promised only to get a call from him asking them to stop urgently as he was already getting inundated with calls from tourists asking to be shown around.
Bag End where Bilbo and Frodo Baggins live
Me stood by the front gate of Bag End
The view across to the Green Dragon and Mill from Bag End
The road sign at the bottom of the hill up to Bag End
The set was partly rebuilt and made more permanent for the Hobbit so it should now last 50 years as a tourist attraction. We carried on down the hill past Frodo's friend Samwise Gamgee's hobbit hole and passed over the bridge to the Green Dragon Pub.
Samwise Gamgee's Hobbit Hole
The bridge into Hobbiton between the Mill and the Green Dragon
The Green Dragon
Inside the Green Dragon is a full functional pub serving free beer specially brewed for it in Auckland and I quite liked the dark ale. There was a carving of a Green Dragon above the bar as well as a hobbit inspired food menu although I didn't see anyone order anything!
Inside the Green Dragon Pub
Anyone fancy a Beer?
Bar Menu and Carved Dragon above the Bar in the Green Dragon
Me at the road sign leaving Hobbiton
Pretty awesome but the day was by no means over, we then drove on for another hour to Rotorua - New Zealand's most famous tourist destination. Rotorua itself with its pervasive eggy sulphur smell sits beside a volcano's crater lake with the cone forming Mokola Island. Like Taupo a bit further south that I was drive through a couple times later in the week, it has vents of steam that seem to appear randomly out of the ground all over the town.
Lake Rotorua and Mokola Island (note the steam venting from the water in the foreground)
Black Swans, Paddle Boat and Float Planes on Lake Rotorua
Rotorua Museum and Government Gardens
Rotorua's Rachel Spring
However what we had really come to Rotorua to see was the famous Pohutu Geyser at Te Puia, a Maori Cultural Centre close to the town. After a chicken and kumara sweet potato hangi lunch (hangi is an underground pit used for traditional Maori cooking) and unexpectedly seeing a live pair of Kiwi's strutting around in the darkness of a Kiwi House (they are nocturnal, the ones I saw were larger than I expected coming up to my thigh in height and surprisingly fast if ungainly on their feet) we walked down to the geothermal valley. Our first stop was the Ngamokaiakoko Mud Pool, plopping and bubbling away beside the path on the way to the geysers.
The Ngamokaiakoko Mud Pool at Te Puia
Close up of the plopping mud
Danger! Active steam vents, be careful where you sit!
The geysers themselves are only a short distance away with a large purpose built viewing bridge close by. The largest and most famous of them is the Pohutu Geyser that erupts 2 to 3 times an hour and can reach heights of up to 90 feet (30 metres). I managed to catch it erupting several times while I was there and at one point got quite wet from the spray when the wind unexpectedly changed direction! Just below Puhutu is the slightly less active and predictable Prince of Wales Feathers Geyser but even it obliged by erupting a couple of times while I was there.
The Pohutu Geyser erupting
The Prince of Wales Feathers Geyser just below Pohutu is thinking of erupting to
Me in front of the erupting Pohutu Geyser
I also took the opportunity to see another Maori Cultural Performance at the Rotowhio Marae that forms part of Te Puia. This time the dance troupe was larger but we were also subjected to Wero (Challenge) as a precursor to the Pohiri (Greeting Ceremony). One of our group was selected as our " Chief" and then one of the Maori warriors approached him and lay down a stick as a gift to see whether we came in war or peace. On picking up and accepting the gift we then all moved slowly towards the Marae's meeting house being careful not to overtake our chief while the rest of the Pohiri Welcoming Ceremony was performed on the steps of their meeting house in front of us. When then went inside and watched the cultural performance including the famous Poi and Haka but for me the highlight was definitely the Pohiri we were subjected to outside!
Before entering the Marae we were subjected to a welcoming ceremony
The Pohiri (Welcoming Ceremony) in full swing, be careful not to cross the line!
The Ladies of the Maori Dance Troupe do the Poi
Male Maori Dancer performing the Haka (War Dance) - you wouldn't want to upset him...