A Travellerspoint blog

Couchsurfing the Last Days in Singapore

Seeing the City with Local Eyes

Prior to arriving in Singapore, I had planned to stay all the days doing couchsurfing. Looking back now, it was better to split up the time I had in the city. The first half was over and I had seen all the sights, must-sees and cool places in the greater downtown region. The second half of my time in Singapore I spent all the way up north in the Woodlands district. Only a short drive away from the bridge that separated Malaysia and Singapore lived Marcus and his family. I was excited to stay with them for a couple of days.
The day I left the hostel, I had some hawker food again before I got on the train that took me all the way from the south of Singapore to the north. Considering the small size of the world's only island city-state it didn't take too long, but I was still on the train for about an hour. Marcus and his dad picked me up from the train station which I appreciated a lot since I wasn't used to it that the host would even pick up the couchsurfer. Having just been to Singapore downtown with its unique buildings and touristic vibe, Woodlands district was more focused on housing people than. It seemed like a pretty modern suburb consisting of high-rise condominiums, lots of playgrounds, communal gardens, barbecue-pits, recreational facilities and you could find trees and greenery nearly everywhere.
We got to their apartment complex and I was welcomed by his sister and mom as well. All were so nice and friendly from the very beginning. There wasn't much time for chatting though, as we headed to Marcus football practice. It wasn't actually a proper practice like I know from back home. We got to the sports grounds, multiple football fields, basketball courts, etc. Marcus told me that the kids of the neighborhood try to meet up as much as possible for some street football in the evening. We made up the teams and surrounded by high-rise condos, loud motor highways and also some green parks we played football. Not having played in years since I switched from football to basketball had its downside. After a while though I got back in the game and even got to score a goal. Me being one of the tallest among the large group of kids, teens and young adults might have been an advantage there. No matter the score, I enjoyed the game a lot. The group was interested in my travels and Germany so we stayed for a bit longer after the game ended to talk to the group. Marcus sister Joscelyn picked us up to drive us back to their apartment. After a refreshing shower and getting the air mattress pumped up so we wouldn't bother anyone later, we headed out to meet up with some of their friends for dinner. I wasn't surprised when we got to a hawker food center. For a long time we sat, ate, drank and talked until it was time to head back and get some sleep.
The next day Marcus family went to church. As I wanted to see the city from the local perspective as much as possible, I asked whether I could join them. So we all went to church the next day. Before the church service began, there was a chance to talk to other community members, buy some food for charity purposes and get to know each other. Then the service was about to start and we took our seats. It was interesting to see how the service was ministered over there. I was glad Marcus family let me join them for this experience.
For the rest of that day we hung out at their apartment complex. For all occupants to use, there were a fitness center, a hot tube and a large outdoor pool. And of course I wanted to do some sports again. Marcus and I worked out in the gym, did some laps in the pool so I could get back in shape for swimming practice back home and relaxed in the hot tube. That evening, Marcus and Joscelyn wanted to show me a local market. Strolling around the various food stands, we came upon on which offered Durian. The edible flesh emits a distinctive odor that is strong and penetrating even when the husk is intact. Some people regard the Durian as having a sweet fragrance. Others find the aroma overpowering and disgusting. Finally I understood what the "No Durian fruit" signs on the train meant! Since I had never tried Durian before I asked whether I could have a sample and with a smile the store owner handed me a piece. It actually tasted great! The strong odor was something I had to get used to but it wasn't unpleasant or so. I wouldn't consider it sweet either though. :) Then we were off for dinner in another food court. Marcus ordered after I told him I'd eat anything.

The last day we had before I flew back home to Germany was rather relaxed. More swimming, working out and driving around the area. Woodlands is a quite the typical expat neighborhood. As I mentioned before that the district is modernly structured, it also features the American School and is close to the Malaysian border. Therefore we took a drive around the wealthier expat part of Woodlands so I could see the cool houses and the mix of Western and Asian architecture. Back at the apartment, I had to start packing and Marcus had to as well. Only a day after I left, he flew to Rome. Luckily he didn't fly earlier as I think I just got the best local experience of Singapore I could have imagined. His dad took us out for dinner at the same place we were the night before and we had a feast of tastes and smells and the one or other beer wasn't missing either.

My time with Marcus and his family flew by like nothing, but I am grateful that he they let me stay with them. The mix of a few tourist days followed by a couple of days from the local perspective completed my Singapore experience. I couldn't believe that the next day I would fly back home. The entire year raced past me in no time. All the adventures beginning in Dubai, then Australia, New Zealand and finally Singapore were experiences I will never forget and always cherish. The people I met and friends I made are a valuable part of those adventures. Singapore was for sure a strong finish of my year of traveling around the world.

Micheal Phelps once said: "You can't put a limit on anything. The more you dream, the farther you get." and I think the last year I had gotten further than ever.

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Image: followmefoodie.com

Image: followmefoodie.com


Image: Marcus Heng

Image: Marcus Heng


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Posted by jan.wegener 01:44 Archived in Singapore Tagged people local singapore asia couchsurfing lastdays Comments (0)

Little India and Singapore by Night

The next morning I actually had a plan of where I wanted to go. Little India was the destination. Right outside the hostel at a nearby convenience store I saw some cool local specialties that caught my eye. Mushrooms, chili and dried shrimps were normal. Flying squirrel not so much.
Along the way to Little India there was heaps to see and worth stopping for. Art, churches, stunning architecture, and temples. Only slowly I could make my way onward. And wherever I walked it was clean. I knew it was a cliche well known about Singapore, but it was only at that point that I started to realize it was also true. I mean, just look at the sidewalk on the last of the following pictures.

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The closer I got to Little India the more colorful the building became. The exotic atmosphere that district gave off was almost tangible. For lunch I checked out the hawker center there. Actually, all I ate was hawker food. It's delicious and cheap - what else could a traveler on a budget want? At the Tekka Center I saw how important religion can be. Next to all the hawker stores was a Buddhism praying station installed. I got myself lunch and then the store owner suddenly asked for a picture with me. Well, okay haha.

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Strolled around Little India afterwards. Compared to the other parts of the town much more people were on the road and were or appeared busy. Little decorations on some of the buildings showed their religious origin. Little India was definitely a colorful district and fun to explore. Small stores on every corner and street sold all kind of stuff from jeans, sunglasses and watches to flowers, spices and fruits.

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From Little India I headed towards Marina Bay again. Stopped by Suntec City Mall's Fountain of Wealth which serves as a hub for the shopping complex. During certain periods of the day, the fountain is turned off and visitors are invited to walk around a mini fountain at the center of the base to collect coins for good luck. It is also said that visitors who walk around the central base of the Fountain three times and touching the water at all times, would gain some good luck of their own. But what if multiple people walk in the opposite direction? :)
Right next to the water side behind the mall was the Formula 1 Circuit. Special about that circuit is that it is actually a public road. Not open to daily traffic but open to the public to jog on, stroll around or just take pictures like I was doing. Cool to imagine the racing cars speeding around the pavement where I was standing. Saw some group of oarsmen practicing on the water and sat on a bench and watched them until I realized it had already became evening. Looking over to the Marina Bay Sands hotel I could see the Singapore Flyer, the 165 meter high Ferris wheel. With the sunset already taking place, the whole scenery made up a good shot for my camera.

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Drawn by the glowing Supertrees on the other side of the bay, I walked back to the spots of the day before with the only change that it was night. During the day the whole Marina Bay area and the Gardens by the Bay are masterfully-designed structures, but at night they really become alive. The Marina Bay Sands hotel, the Helix Bridge and of course the Supertrees all offered great opportunities for amazing pictures. To my surprise, there was a music and light show going on when I arrived at the platform to look at the Supertrees. To get a small impression of what I'm talking about make sure to check out the video I'll post at the end of this entry as a short recap of my impressions of Singapore so far.
Back the same way as the previous day, along the water side of Marina Bay, saying good night to the Merlion and then through the downtown district. Walking the entire day was tiring, but worth it when you really want to see a place. Because you never know what you might miss out on when you take the train.

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Posted by jan.wegener 13:03 Archived in Singapore Tagged art buildings night architecture singapore chinatown city f1 littleindia Comments (0)

First Days in Singapore

Chinatown, Buddhism and Supertrees

Singpore - my first Asian country I traveled to. I was not only excited to explore a new part of the world, but also a new culture. All places I had been to were to some extent westernized. Even in Singapore I could still feel a bit of the Western influence which was brought upon the island by the British East India Company in 1819. Thomas Stamford Raffles signed a treaty with the Sultan of that time to develop the southern Singapore as a British trading post. Since then the island of Singapore has been in the hands of the Japanese, the Malay and back to the British for a while. In 1965 Singapore became independent and (lucky for me) celebrated its 50th year of independence when I was there in 2015.

Upon my arrival, I and the other passengers were welcomed by Singa the lion, Singapore's beloved mascot. The statue of Singa was constructed in celebration of Singapore’s 50th birthday. Taking the train to get to my hostel for the first nights was the first adventure. Compared to the way of taking the train in Germany that ride was slightly different. The people didn't mind being cramped into the train whereas in Germany everyone wants to have their own seat and as much personal space as possible. Got out in Chinatown and walked between all the small shops, open stores and people selling pretty much anything. Across from Masjid Jamae mosque, I looked for the hostel I booked my room in. For some reason I had trouble finding it though. After a little while I found the entrance which was located in a side street instead of the main street. The hostel was considerably small compared to what I was staying in New Zealand, but had a multicultural atmosphere which I enjoyed. The room was small as well and was divided into two floors. Going up a ladder, there was a separate bed and the guy sleeping up there had obvious sleeping problems as the other room members could hear him roll around all night. Headphones in and problem solved. A quick shower before I went to bed as it was quite a change of temperature coming from NZ to Singapore. Also the humidity was significantly higher and I knew I would be sweating a lot there. To my surprise, the shower wasn't like a shower most of us expected it to be. At least I wasn't used to a toilet right underneath the shower head. After asking the receptionist I was told that that is common and saves time. I always love learning something new about different cultures.

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The next day, I was up and ready early in the morning to see what Singapore can offer. I didn't really had a plan where to go and what to do but thought I just go along and see what happens. What I already realized and started to love was that everywhere I looked I could see some green - plants, trees, parks it really gave the impression of being somewhere but a heavily populated city.
Not far from my hostel was something I didn't expect. The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple truly stood out of the scenery surrounded by skyscrapers. The "let's see what happens"-strategy worked out well so far. At that moment when I entered the Buddha temple, a ceremony was going on. The ceremony was open to public to experience. The chants of the Buddha priests were mesmerizing and I found myself lost in the scene for a while.
After the ceremony, I went upstairs to the museum part of the temple. Many religious exhibits were displayed and an area to pray was reserved as well. I learned a lot about Buddhism that day.

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Time for lunch after visiting the Buddha temple. Due to the cultural diversity in the city, Singapore's ethnic hawker cuisine is as diverse as its people. Hawker food is cheap but doesn't lack anything in taste! No idea what I ordered sometimes as I relied on recommendations from locals but it always turned out pretty well! Afterwards I decided to head towards the harbor. During the walk I noticed all construction sites along the streets were using bamboo for their scaffolds. Interesting way of construction. At the harbor, I went in Marina Bay Mall and damn, whatever brand you are looking for you get it there. MK, LV, Harley-Davidson oh and yeah did I mention they have an ice ring and a water channel Venice-style? Right behind the mall sits one of the probably most photographed buildings in the world. The Marina Bay Sands hotel with its rooftop pool is easily recognized. My attempt to get up to the top floor was ended as quickly as it began. A security man was hired exclusively to keep non-hotel guest from entering the pool area. Well, worth a try. Nevertheless, I had an epic view even by looking out of the top-floor window. The hotel itself is a great piece of architecture. Really fascinating.

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Another attraction Singapore is famous for are the Gardens by the Bay. The Gardens are part of a strategy by the Singapore government to transform Singapore from a "Garden City" to a "City in a Garden". Well, it worked. On one side of the hotel you have skyscrapers, business buildings and on the other side there is a huge man-made forest. And that's where I was at that moment. Looking at tree-like structures with heights that range between 25 meters and 50 meters. The Supertrees are vertical gardens that perform a multitude of functions, which include planting, shading and working as environmental engines for the gardens.They are home to enclaves of unique and exotic ferns, vines and orchids. Environmental technologies were put into the Supertrees to mimic ecological functions of a tree like photovoltaic cells that harness solar energy. A rainwater collection system helps irrigating the plants and fountains of the park. There is also an elevated walkway between the larger Supertrees so visitors can enjoy a aerial view of the Gardens. Since visitors have to pay for walking the elevated walkway and the two conservatories I only walked around on ground level. The conservatories, Flower Dome and Cloud Forest, replicate different climates to grow and display other plant species. The Flower Dome copies a mild, dry climate and features plants found in the Mediterranean and other semi-arid tropical regions. The Cloud Forest is a replica of cool moist conditions found in tropical mountain regions between 1,000 meters and 3,000 meters above sea level, found in South-East Asia, Middle- and South America. I suppose it would have been a great experience walking around those different climates and plants but I figured I could spent the money on more hawker food.

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To get back to the hostel to catch up some sleep, I walked over the Helix Bridge, through the Youth Olympic Park and pass the Esplanade, Singapore's Theater on the Bay. But I had to stop at the iconic Merlion. Created as a marketing icon of Singapore, the Merlion is depicted as a mythical creature with a lion's head and a body of a fish. The fish body represents Singapore's origin as a fishing village. The lion head represents Singapore's original name - Singapura, meaning "lion city". A photo with Singapore's national personification is mandatory when you visit the city.
Walking further along Singapore River, I passed the Fullerton Hotel, the Boat Quay (the busiest part of the old Port of Singapore, handling three quarters of all shipping business during the 1860s) and the Parkroyal hotel on Pickering. Latter was for me interesting as it uses a so-called hotel-in-a-garden concept with lush sky gardens and cascading vertical greenery. The rest of the day/evening I spent getting more food from the hawker center nearby Chinatown and then catching up some sleep. Thankfully, rolling-over-in-bed guys wasn't back yet.

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Posted by jan.wegener 08:25 Archived in Singapore Tagged architecture singapore chinatown adventure city harbor asia explore firstdays Comments (0)

Haere ra!

Last Days in New Zealand

I hadn't realized when we left River Valley that morning that in only 4 days, I'd be sitting on a plane leaving New Zealand behind me. Only 4 days left and I was still in the middle of North Island. Because of the minimum of time I was running on, I pretty much rushed through the rest of the trip to get back to Auckland in time for my flight. Nevertheless, I tried to get the most of the little time I had left.

The bus drive that morning was dominated by Ruahine and Taranua Forest Park. They accompanied our group along the way south to NZ's capital - Wellington. Shortly after passing through the town of Otaki, we could see Kapiti Island. Once home to one of the most feared of all Maori chiefs, Te Rauparaha and his warriors, the island is now a native bird sanctuary with a great kiwi-breeding program.

Not much later we were in Wellington. Located directly on a major earthquake fault line, the biggest earthquake in the region was recorded in 1855 with 8 on the Richter scale. Luckily we didn't feel any seismic activity the one night we stayed. Upon arrival, we moved into the rooms and were surprised to receive a meal voucher from the receptionist. Another day we got cooked for. After we ate, we were up to some sight seeing. Wellington is home to the NZ government, capital of culture, the arts, dining and nightlife. The city is also known as the film capital of New Zealand with famous movies like The Lord of the Rings, King Kong, Avatar and The Hobbit being made there.
One of the most notable buildings in the city is the Beehive. It serves as the office of the Prime Minister and Members of Parliament. A small group of us spent the evening walking around the town, checking out some of the cool statues and arts.
Most of the rest of the group was taking the ferry the following day over Cook Strait to the South Island. I however, was joining the next group going back up north with the bus. One night was definitely not enough time to explore Wellington and the surrounding area, but we had still a good time.

Image: http://www.victoria.ac.nz/

Image: http://www.victoria.ac.nz/


Image: upload.wikimedia.org

Image: upload.wikimedia.org


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The last week I spent discovering the North Island from north to south. In the following two days, I drove the same way back - up and down NZ's North Island in just over a week. We drove the same way I and the group took just the previous day, passing Kapiti Island, Ruahine and Taranua Forest Park, the River Valley Lodge until we reached Lake Taupo. In Taupo, I partly took over the role of a guide and hiked up the northern hillside of Taupo with some others of the group. Even though we only had a few days together, the new group bonded quickly.

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Making our way quickly northwards, we only stopped shortly in Rotorua. Some travelers left the group for the night in the Maori village and others for the Waitomo caves. Just outside of Rotorua we had another stop at Kiwi Encounter. It is a recovery center for the iconic, flightless native bird of NZ - the kiwi bird. All earnings from the entrance fees go towards saving the bird. The stay wasn't long, but we got to experience some of the unique animals only to be found in New Zealand.

And then I was where I was a week ago - in Auckland. To save some money for my time in Singapore, I couchsurfed again. The host, Rakeeb was truly nice and even paid for dinner one of the two nights I had in Auckland. As I had already seen Auckland, the last days in New Zealand I spent preparing for my next adventure in Singapore.

New Zealand was beyond what I imagined it would be. Everything about it was an amazing experience. The groups on the KiwiEx bus, the adventurous activities like bungy jumping, learning about Maori culture... I could name it all, but that's what I wrote the blog for - to always remember and have a chance to look back to it. Thanks Aotearoa for having been such a terrific host. I make sure to come back one day!
The next day, I would be on my way to the last destination before heading home. Singapore was calling me.

Haere ra - goodbye.

Image: http://motorbikeholidaysnz.co.nz/

Image: http://motorbikeholidaysnz.co.nz/

Posted by jan.wegener 01:24 Archived in New Zealand Tagged people auckland landscape party goodbye newzealand northisland lastdays laketaupo Comments (0)

River Valley

Our own Secluded Place for a Night

Looking out of the window that morning, we could overlook the eastern shores of Lake Taupo. Passing through the township of Turnagi, the fishing capital of New Zealand, we headed towards Tongariro National Park. It is New Zealand's oldest National Park, one of New Zealand's three World Heritage sites and the fourth one created in the world! The Tongariro walk is famous and highly praised. The trip offers a unique opportunity to see and explore that volcanic region. Three volcanoes, Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe (remember Mt. Doom?!) and Tongariro dominate the epic scenery. Big thanks goes out to Maori chief Te Heuheu Tukino who gave the main part of the National Park to the people of New Zealand in 1867. And guess what, I couldn't do the awesome day hike due to the lack of my travel time. One of the multiple reason why I need to come back to Aotearoa one day!
Whakapapa Village visitor center was the closest I got the the volcanoes. The village was founded in the 1920's as an early skiing pioneers developed a base from which to pursue their love of skiing. So yeah, we were checking out the highest residential alpine village in NZ (1150 meters altitude). In the visitor center, people can learn everything about the region, volcanic activities and the Maori culture of that area.

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Our destination of that day was a remote lodge situated between towering cliffs and bush-clad hills. River Valley Lodge was a beautiful located family-run hostel. Rangitikei River flows right past the front door. We were thrilled to have the whole place all for ourselves for the night. About 50 years ago, the area was a part of a family farm. Then they had the dream to share the beautiful location with other people. Inside, we were welcomed by the entire family (and it wasn't small). The big interior was dominated by a large open fireplace and a comfortable common area. The sleeping rooms however, were like a sardine can for people. Beds were arranged side by side on two levels to fit in about 30 people in the big room. For one night, it was an interesting place to sleep though.

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The afternoon we spent checking out the surrounding area. Over Rangitikei River, there runs a tiny gondola-like cable car. At least that was the best explanation I could come up with. One by one, we pulled our way over the rapids. Some of us were kind of scared, since falling of the car meant falling in the probably ice-cold water. Of course we made it all over to the other side. There, we hiked up the steep hillside. We wanted to see where the path led and we ended up at the edge of a private hunting ground! Yep, we turned around by then.
That night, we got served the most delicious meal most of us had for a long time - the Thanksgiving-like feast filled us all up plentiful. With a full belly, we spent long hours in the common area. Having drinks, playing all kinds of games, telling each other stories until one after another went upstairs to the sardine can bed room. River Valley Lodge truly brought the whole group together.

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Posted by jan.wegener 13:51 Archived in New Zealand Tagged mountains tongariro landscape scenic vulcano maori newzealand picturesque nationalpark northisland laketaupo rivervalley Comments (0)

Lake Taupo

At the Edge of a Supervulcano

It was the 12th of May. In only one week I'd be leaving New Zealand. I didn't comprehend yet what that meant. It meant, that my world trip was almost over. It meant, I'd leave Aotearoa and have only week left of travels. It meant, I would be home at last after having traveled over 300 days through many countries. It didn't fit in my head yet at that point. I pushed that thought back in my head and continued looking out of the bus window. We headed towards Lake Taupo with the township of Taupo right at its edge. The highlight of that days bus drive was the cone shaped mountain many would recognize from a special movie trilogy (yes, The Lord of the Rings) - Mt. Ngauruhoe aka. Mt. Doom.

Winding along the street, Waikato River was making its way to Lake Taupo as well. We stopped at the massive Huka Falls (Maori huka meaning foam). With a height of 11 meters and what looks like a caved channel it looks man-made, however, it is completely natural. An earthquake formed the Waikato River in that area. Every second, 220.000 liters of water rush down the falls. The massive amount of water created such a thundering sound.

Image: farm1.nzstatic.com

Image: farm1.nzstatic.com


Image: upload.wikimedia.org

Image: upload.wikimedia.org


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The Huka Falls were only a short distance from the township of Taupo so that it didn't take long to get to our hostel after the stop at the waterfall. The town of Taupo's full name is Taupo-nui-a-Tia (Maori for great cloak of Tia). It is named after chief Tia who laid his cloak on the ground and by doing this forming the lake. The lake itself is about 616 km2 big and therefore larger than Singapore (where I would be in only 7 days!!). It is the biggest freshwater lake in Australasia. This wasn't always the case. Around 186AD ancient Chinese and Roman records recall a dark red skies that brought climate change. The Chinese talked about a "red dragon" high in the sky. The red dragon was one of the world's most violent volcanic explosions. Simply put, we were standing at the crater of a supervulcano. Damn...

One main cultural attraction which is actually located on Lake Taupo are the Mine Bay Rock Carvings. Master carver Matahi Whakataka-Brightwell who had finished his 10-year training period with Maori elders in the late 1970's returned to Taupo in order to start an important carving. Matahi decided to start a carving of Ngatoroirangi, a visionary Maori navigator who guided the Maori tribes of Tuwharetoa and Te Arawa to the Taupo area over a thousand years ago. The main carving is over 10 meters high and took four years to complete. The artwork is Matahi's gift to Taupo. Too bad I had no chance to see them in person but only on pictures.

Image: greatlaketaupo.com

Image: greatlaketaupo.com


Image: melissagoodsell.typepad.com

Image: melissagoodsell.typepad.com


Image: utaot.com

Image: utaot.com

Near the water side, a variety of sculptures, arts and crafts can be found. The artistic works shall reflect the landscape and cultural background of the lake, mountains and surrounding landscape. The Taupo Art Connection Art Trail includes works like "The Crossing" by local artist Robbie Graham. It represents the volcanic peaks of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (which I couldn't do either due to the short amount of time I had left...). Another beautiful piece is the "Reid’s Carving". That beautiful Maori carving was built in 1961 by carver Tene Waitere. The red carving symbolizes a woman, Lucy Rongoheikume Rickit, who was a descendant of the Maori tribes Tuhourangi of Rotorua and Tuwharetoa of Taupo. It honors the great Maori leaders who founded the two tribes and how they came together through the whakapapa (Maori for lineage) of Mrs. Ruihi (Lucy) Rongoheikume Reid (born Rickit). Both and many more are a great addition to the region. All have a special story to tell.
The rest of the day was spent strolling around in town and finishing the day hanging out with the group.

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Posted by jan.wegener 12:13 Archived in New Zealand Tagged mountains art lake waterfall vulcano maori nz newzealand lordoftherings northisland laketaupo Comments (0)

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