23 May, Whitianga to Rotorura

The comment I hear most thus far is “I keep saying this is the greatest thing I’ve ever done/seen, and every day it’s something new,” which just about sums up the general feeling at this point. Every part of every day is some new wonder, some new adventure, some new breathtaking view, and each moment feels like the greatest moment of your life. We’ve done such a variety of activities and each is absolutely mind-blowing in a different way. The feeling of bliss, of awe, is spread throughout the entire choir, and only grows with each new experience and interaction with the wonderful community of people here.

Day 4 we left early in the morning to drive to Whitianga – about a 3-hour drive around a bay area, through jungle-like, prehistoric-looking wilderness. Upon arrival, we had lunch and a rehearsal with the Mercury Bay Community Choir for our concert that evening. The concert itself was truly the best performance we’d ever put on as a choir. The audience was incredibly receptive – audibly and sometimes physically reacting to our pieces – which meant we sung them better than we ever had before, putting our whole collective soul into the music. Then we retreated to our host families – mine was with Lesley and Phill, who had known Professor Niblock from his earlier visits, and were so welcoming and kind to us.

Day 5 was the first big sightseeing day. Whitianga itself is gorgeous, located right on a bay, but exploring outside the city we were able to see such incredible sights hidden from the main roads. We woke early and went to see the Hot Beach, an area along the coastline where people bring shovels and dig in the sand, which causes hot steaming water to swell up and create natural hot tubs. The water was scalding, but we mixed it with the cold ocean water to balance it out. After that, Phill took the choir out in separate boat tours along the coast, where we were able to see Shakespeare Cliff, Lonely Bay, and Cathedral Cove (if you’ve seen “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian”, the beginning scene in Narnia was filmed there). The water was the clearest turquoise blue I’d ever seen, and the rock cliffs were stunningly white.

Once everyone had gotten a chance to go out, we all drove to go meet a local artist who combines his concepts with music, and explore around his home and the beach by him. We watched the sun set over the ocean, and all felt that now-familiar, all-encompassing bliss and peace sweep over us. That feeling only grew when we returned back to Whitianga, and the choir members and their host families all came to Lesley and Phill’s home for a potluck, which soon turned into a group singalong. I’d never felt such a feeling of family and love from people who had been complete strangers just the day before. Niblock truly did welcome us to his family here, and we could all see just what that meant to him, and understand why he returned so frequently.

Day 6 began with working with 4th and 5th graders from Whitianga’s school district, giving them constructive pointers and then performing a few songs for them. The students were much more receptive and engaged than we were expecting, and at the end they had us all sign autographs for them, insisting we’d soon be famous. We left there for a 3 hour hike up to Shakespeare’s Cliff, down to Lonely Bay, and across a couple of the mountains where the original Maori defensive position was. At the top of Shakespeare’s Cliff, we gathered and sang “Hine e Hine”, a traditional Maori song. The piece that we’d been singing for a year now suddenly had an entirely different energy and meaning to it – looking out across the bay at the cliffs and the islands with the sun shining on us, we felt the roots of the song, the inspiration for it, the connection with the island and the people and its history.

From Shakespeare’s Cliff we trekked down to Lonely Bay to see the beach cove, and then began hiking up across one of the mountains. This was my absolute favorite part of the day – seeing thee incredible scenery and looking out across Whitianga, but also getting to follow the small side trails and climb on the rocks and trees in the jungle, eyes wide with childlike wonder and joy. It was the most picturesque and lush playground I’d ever climbed through. After the hike we were dropped at our respective host families, entirely exhausted from the past few days, and spent the night having a last meal and packing to leave early the next day.

I cannot truly say how spectacular this trip has been thus far, and we are only halfway through. Each day brings some new wonderment, and elevates our joy and our sense of family as a choir. We don’t mind how much time we spend together, we don’t mind losing sleep to see the sights, we’re all so caught up in the beauty and the magic that is New Zealand. Many of us have mentioned that we don’t want to leave, that we truly would love to live here, and that’s a testament to just how welcoming and loving the people have been – it’s not the views that make Whitianga feel like a home, it’s the people. We don’t want to just be travelers, pass through and leave again, we want to be a part of the community, get to know the families and the histories even better. We came to New Zealand full of excitement and a thirst for adventure, and New Zealand took us in with open arms.