We have just posted 3 new photo galleries: More South Island, More More South Island, and Back to North Island. Happy trails!
03/08/2011, Tongariro and Lake Taupo
Yesterday, we achieved bragging rights ... we did The Tongariro Alpine Crossing: a 19.4 kilometer trek (12 miles), with a 2500 foot vertical climb, a 3700 feet descent to the finish, and reputed to be the best one-day walk in New Zealand. And although it's the only one-day walk we've done here in the land of world-class walks and treks and tramps and tracks and hikes, we do believe it was the best. I wouldn't exactly call it a "walk" however -- a trudge at times, a slog at others, and yes, thankfully, a walk for much. But it was a great achievement and we're glad Gloria and Michael encouraged us to do it. They did the crossing a few days earlier and gave us all the details on when, how, where. Gloria and Michael are both athletes and in great shape, whereas Allan and I are better at water sports and less athletic on land, so we were both a bit hesitant to make such a big commitment, fearing the resurgence of old and still-lurking injuries halfway through the long hike, but with a bit of push from them, and some good ol' peer pressure, not to mention a huge amount of curiosity, we (as I knew we would) inevitably signed up.
You see, it's not just that the crossing is the best one-day walk in New Zealand, or that it takes you past two active volcanoes, along 3 gorgeous aqua-colored thermal lakes, above numerous craters, and ultimately through lush jungle-forest. It's not just that it's a fantastic view of the stunning Red Crater, of giant Lake Taupo presiding below in the valley, and across a hundred miles of beautiful mountainous terrain all around. What really inspired us was Mount Doom. Mount Doom, officially known as Mt. Puukekaikiore, lurks menacingly to the right, towering over the first half of the track, smoking quietly, looking really austere and mean. For those of you who are not Lord of the Rings fans, The fires of Mt. Doom are the ultimate goal for Frodo the Hobbit, into which he is to throw the evil Ring of Power. And so, as LOTR fans, and since we're both reading the series while we're here, immersed in the lore and the lure, it seemed imperative that we make this trek, bond for a little while with Sam and Frodo as they make their agonizing march toward their presumed end.
Let's start with all the reasons this was an amazing and unusual event: first of all, we started the hike at 6:15am, while it was still dark. That meant, in order to have a proper hiker's breakfast (granola, fruit, coffee) that we were waking up to an alarm (!!) at 4:45am. Normally, you won't see much happening around our camper until 7am at the earliest, and of late, more like 8am. (We are still on vacation.) Second, we woke to sub-freezing air temps, ice crystals on the window, and a thin layer of ice crusting the rain puddle in the lawn. Being fair-weather folk, we had almost everything we own on our wimpy, tropical sailor-bodies, braced against the frosty air and worse, ready for chill of forecast high winds. I inherited a fear of the cold from my father, so I was so layered until I looked like the Pillsbury Dough boy, and still I was nervous it wasn't enough.
It's not a guided walk; there are numerous companies that will, for a price, drop you off at the start of the walk and pick you up on the other side in the afternoon. At G & M's suggestion, we stayed at the Discovery Lodge campground and took advantage of their transportation service and their knowledgeable advice. They boast that they're the closest to the start and make the earliest drop offs, giving their hikers time to themselves before the rush -- we learned that on a good-weather day, an average of 500, and as many as 1,000 people make the crossing! On the bus at 6am, the driver gave a briefing with the latest weather for the day and tips on how to be most comfortable and make the best of the hike. Yesterday they made a strong point of ensuring that everyone was dressed "in really warm clothes."
We intentionally paced ourselves rather slowly, Allan being especially sensitive to a few nagging injuries I've had in the last few years, so the rest of the bus-load of hikers took off, leaving us alone on the track which was fine with us. It was totally silent except the increasing howl of the wind, and we marveled at the beautiful sulfur and mud ice crystals crunching under our feet. Throughout the entire walk, which ultimately took 8 hours, we saw no animals, heard no birds, and for the first half of the walk, saw very little vegetation. The terrain was austere, yet it was gorgeous. Hints of the sun, as it rose nearer the ridge in front of us, created a gleaming corona of light around the rough volcanic rocks. Behind us in the valley, the morning light turned the fields an ethereal yellow-green with a sharp line of shadow cast by the mountains. Somewhere around 8am the helicopters started making their sightseeing trips overhead, following the winding path of the trail and seeming to mock us in our tenuous climb. One of the helicopters was transporting a small film crew to the flat area of the South Crater, where they are making an i Touch application that hikers can use for the crossing.
We reached the highest point in 3 hours, and as we came over the ridge, we saw the most magnificent and breath-taking sight: the Red Crater -- brilliant red, rust, gold, and brown lining steep, rutted walls. It made the entire climb to that point worthwhile. The ground steamed in white sulfur clouds, and felt warm to the touch, the heat of the Earth warming the mountain all the way to where we stood at 1886 meters (6,188 feet) above sea level.
From there it was a mostly easy walk down, starting with a fun walk-slide down the steep ridge from the crater in soft, warm dirt to the first of the three Emerald Lakes, each a slightly different yet unreal hue of blue-green, clear and striking in the rough landscape. The entire area is steeped in Maori tradition and of great importance in Maori culture, as described in this DOC brochure:
"Tongariro National Park is New Zealand's oldest national park
and a World Heritage area ... forming the nucleus of the Tongariro National
Park. The park's dual World Heritage status recognises its important
Maori cultural associations as well as its outstanding volcanic
features. The mountains are ... the matua (parent of the land) and the focus of their mana (pride). The spiritual and cultural values are part of the landscape."
It was a sobering privilege to walk beneath those still-active volcanoes, in the beautiful, Mars-like terrain, amongst the rich history and cultural importance of the area. The last stop along the well-maintained track is the Ketetahi Hut, where everyone rested, splayed out on the deck in the warm sun, peeling off layers of clothing and diving into peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, apples, granola bars, and always lots and lots of water. We rested there for about 30 minutes then set off on the last march of the day, having successfully tossed the ring into the fires of Mt. Doom, given each other the high five, rested up, and were now ready for the final trek back to Hobbiton. Oh, wait, that wasn't us. No, we were the ones who suffered mightily through that last 6 km, the flattest and certainly easiest part of the whole day, through cool green moss-laden trees alongside a beautiful little stream. For us it was 2 hours of shoes are too tight - back hurts - gotta pee -- shoulders ache from the pack -- when will it end, when will it end?? And finally it did end, at a busy parking lot crammed with cars and buses, the lawn littered with dusty, tired but satisfied hikers waiting for their particular form of pickup back to the start of their trek.
We ached, but we felt fantastic. We were glad none of those old injuries and sprains came up to haunt us, glad we didn't twist any ankles or sprain any wrists, but we wanted a hot tub. Badly. As luck would have it, the lake Taupo area is steeped, quite literally, in thermal pools. So we snagged a campsite here in the Taupo DeBretts Spa Resort (and campground) with the Taupo Thermal Park right next door. 3 natural mineral pools, which are drained and refilled from the ground each day, welcome the achy hiker with a cool, a warm, and a hot pool -- huge, clean, and in a delightful tropical setting. They even have a giant slide. Since I didn't get my giant slide ride in Waingaro, way back at the beginning of our Kiwi adventures due to the flooding of the water park, we decided to take another day and hang out today. More therapeutic soaking, a chance to blurb and download photos, do laundry, take a jaunt around town, stock up on groceries for the last 6 days of our camping adventure, and take a winding, twisting ride down the giant slide!
03/06/2011, Masterton, North Island, NZ
The last few days have been about aviation, a topic near and dear to our (temporarily) grounded hearts. We are both at a point in our 22 months off where we're really missing flying, and just as we need a dose of it most, along comes the Omaka Aviation Heritage Museum, just outside Blenheim in the NE corner of the South Island. We were in Blenheim about 3 weeks earlier, and did a wine tour on bicycles, but as we left town the next day we saw signs for the museum, and vowed to come back. Recommendations from friends who'd recently been strengthened our resolve, and when we read that the Sydney Morning Herald has decried the museum "The best museum in the world" (not just the best aviation museum, the best any kind of museum) we knew we couldn't miss it.
So Thursday saw us pulling onto a familiar spot of grass beside the babbling brook in the Top 10 Holiday Park in Blenheim for two nights, making Blenheim our most-visited spot in New Zealand, after Auckland. We said hello to our ducks, who expressed joy at our return and graciously accepted handfuls of muesli, caught up with a couple we'd met in the Te Anau Top 10 a week or so earlier, did some laundry, and had a nice meal by the brook.
The next day we headed off to the museum. And it was wonderful, although I don't know about the very best in the whole wide world. I mean, it's hard to beat the Louvre in Paris, the Getty in Santa Monica, or the MOMA in New York, but it was great fun. Peter Jackson, film director, most notable of late for directing the Lord of the Rings trilogy, is on the Board of Directors of the museum, and is a passionate WWI aviation enthusiast. His theatrical influence is evident in the way each aircraft is displayed in a huge, life-sized diorama of a wartime event, replete with wax pilots and soldiers in actual garb of the day, smooshing around in very realistic French countryside mud and German snow. It's quite impressive to see the aircraft, rare and beautifully restored (or in some cases recreated in faithful replica) up close in a rather dark and moody environment.
I have to admit, due to a congenital birth defect that added an additional vertebrae to the lowest part of my spine, it's quite painful for me to stand for long periods of time. And so I have always disliked museums. After an hour of slow meandering through a museum, no matter how interesting, I am on the verge of suicide. But we managed to stay almost until closing, and I found myself with a new-found interest in really vintage aircraft, and a curiosity about WWI, the war that happened 44 years or so before my arrival on this odd warlike planet.
We crossed the Tasman Straight yesterday on the 1pm ferry, saying farewell to the South Island, and headed directly for Masterton, a town on the southern end of the North Island that is also known, although not quite as well, for it's aviation history. Allan was hoping for a ride in a Tiger Moth, an old bi-wing plane, at the Masterton airport, and we'd heard a rumor that it was one of the few places he might make that happen. We'd also heard there was a good little museum there. We arrived this morning at the airport, a small field with just a few buildings and hangars and very few signs. It took awhile to find a small, unimposing sign on a dull, unimpressive hangar that included the word "museum" in it's name, but at last we did, and wandered in for confirmation about the rumors we'd heard about the Tiger Moth and the museum. Yes, there is a woman who gives 30-minute instructional flights in a Tiger Moth, but she hadn't come in, the weather was abysmal, and the forecast held no promise of improvement. And the museum, we were told, wasn't exactly a museum but rather a private collection of aircraft that was available for viewing. So we happily made the $12 donation and Sarah, our guide, took us on a tour of the fantastic hangar, crammed with many rare, original and beautifully restored WWI aircraft, as well as some faithful reproductions, sitting wingtip over wingtip, tail to cowling. The collection included a Sopwith Camel ("Curse you, Red Baron!" cries Snoopy -- my only conscious awareness of WWI prior to a few days ago) as well as a reproduction Fokker Tri-plane, which the Red Baron himself made notorious (and with which he shot all those holes in Snoopy's doghouse.)
Sarah was fantastic, and we learned so much we'd never known about that era, and about the designs of the aircraft. A pilot herself, it was evident she knew her stuff, and in fact one of the airplanes in the hangar is her post-WWII de Havilland Chipmunk. Turns out this collection is only a fraction of the actual collection being restored or replicated by Vintage Aviator Ltd. The rest are squirreled away here and there, waiting for their day, or a bigger hangar, I guess. I might suggest the following website for those of you who are interested, although I haven't checked it out yet: www.thevintageaviator.co.nz
We left the fabulous and freezing hangar with some WWI calendars slung under our arms and walked through the drizzle to our camper, our faithful HQ, and now here we are in Napier, the Art Deco center of NZ, which we'll explore tomorrow.
Oh, we also had a fun evening last night as we pulled into Masterton looking for the i-Site, the tourist and camping information site located in every NZ town: we discovered that the National Golden Shears competition was on, the battle for sheep-shearing supremacy in New Zealand. We had a chance to watch the first round on wide-screen TV's set up in a tent across the street from the actual (sold-out) event. 78 sheep were sheared in about 15 minutes by 6 burly shearers, a back-breaking job, it would appear. The action was announced by a man who gave a blow-by-blow account of the events, sounding much like an auctioneer-turned-horse-race announcer: "And he's going for the neck now Number 6 the reigning champion on his 3rd long-hair Number 3 close behind and going for the belly remember it's quality not just speed that counts in this competition ..." After that first round we took our leave and went in search of dinner, and as we passed the back side of the arena we spied the newly-sheared sheep coming out of the building into the holding pen, sporting some pretty raw and bleeding spots on their now-bare skin (points off), and looking a bit dazed. But it was fun -- the wool industry in NZ is a big thing, and we hadn't really seen much shearing go on since we arrived. By the way, make your reservations now for the World Championship Competition next year, right here in Masterton!
But -- after all this cool aviation stuff, the wonderful ferry across the Tasman Straight, the good food, the sheep-shearing excitement, and all the usual fantastic "Stop It, New Zealand" scenery, the most moving event of this week was the little critter in the picture above. Driving north this afternoon, passing the usual rolling green hills dotted with tranquil sheep, peaceful cows and picturesque farmhouses, me in a mild doze in the passenger seat, Allan suddenly pulled the car over and started backing up. Returned sleepily to the present moment, I asked what was up. "I think I saw a Kiwi in the road" he said, and I perked up fully. We've been trying to spot a Kiwi bird since we arrived almost 6 weeks ago, still no joy on that effort. Maybe this was it? I turned around and spied a furry blob in the road, and my heart sunk -- maybe it was a dead Kiwi? Well, dead is still better than none, I reasoned, and we hopped out onto the wet road and ran over to see it. Turned out to be a small hedgehog, we think, that had been hit by a car although it had no obvious signs of injury. As we looked, we noticed it was breathing. We ducked out of the way of an oncoming motorcycle, who drove around the furry heap, then ran back, and Allan picked it up -- spiny as a tiny porcupine -- and gingerly carried it off the road. It was so cute, it's tiny black feet were freezing cold, and it had tucked itself into a ball, a typical defensive move. But he was so weak he'd lost his ability to stay balled up, and would quickly relax in Allan's hand, giving us a good look at his little black face, which is when we got the picture above. We don't know much more about him, or even if it was a him. We laid him under a thick protective branch well clear of the road and wished him well.
And that little spiky hedgehog was the highlight of our week. It doesn't seem to matter how much money goes into something, how fantastic is is, how lauded, how rare, how expensive: the real things in life for us, the things that make our day and our week are the impromptu meetings with unexpected little critters, the close encounters and simple moments of connection. In our minds that hedgehog will sleep tonight, protected by the big leaves on the huge tree, nestled into a warm bed of grass. Tomorrow he'll stretch out of his sleepy ball and go for a stroll, hopefully in a direction away from the road. That's our happy ending for this week.
02/26/2011, Nugget Point, Otago Peninsula, NZ
Alllan took this photo with our little camera looking though our monocular, which explains it's appearance. We were in the hide above the beach, roughly 150 feet away from this penguin.
02/26/2011, Otago Peninsula
This is a downloaded photo of the little blue penguins. We couldn't use cameras or lights, so were unable to get any photographs of them on Pilot Beach on the Otago Peninsula. They stand about 10-12 inches tall, although some info suggests they get as big as 16". Read on for the blurb ...
02/26/2011, Moeraki Boulders, South Island, NZ
Seems as though as soon as we rounded the bottom of New Zealand's South Island, passing through Invercargill and up the east coast, things have become a little more mellow. Not so much of the tourist hype and adrenalin-rich money-gobbling stuff going on. It's still here, but more subtle, and you can breathe a bit more.
We've focused the last number of days on animals and beaches and rocks, and spent very little money. After the stunning mosaic rocks of Purakaunui, we headed for Kaka, where a nearby yellow-eyed penguin colony is rumored to be, as well as a nice hike out to a lighthouse on a stunning point.
The yellow-eyed penguins, the rarest penguin in the world, is normal penguin height, with beautiful, delicate markings on their heads, and clear yellow eyes. There are about 20 pair of them at Nugget Point, well-protected in an effort to increase their numbers. They come in from fishing at about dusk, and we were only able to view them from a hide -- a shelter built by the Department of Conservation, up the hill quite a ways above the beach. Through binoculars, we spied 4 of them, in their moulting stage now, although that wasn't apparent through our lenses. It was exciting to see them, for real, even though they were far away. It's quite a different experience to see a penguin up close at a zoo vs. one in the wild, no matter what the distance. It's thrilling, when you first spot an animal like that. It's real.
We hid in the wind-protected hide for about 30 minutes, but the light was waning and we wanted to check out the lighthouse, so we climbed the hill and continued our drive out to the point. The walk to the lighthouse was beautiful, with steep, rocky cliffs dropping below the edge of the path, and a spectacular view of land across the bay in the early evening light, with rainstorms in the distance and the sea strangely lit, almost as if from below. The view from the lighthouse was equally stupendous. We returned to our little grassy campground in the sleepy beach side town of Kaka at about 9pm, and focused a few hours on Internet and computer issues.
The next morning after laundry, washing the van clean of all it's muddy off-roading, and posting all those pictures to the photo gallery, we were off to Dunedin, where our primary focus was to buy Harley Davidson t-shirts for a friend. We had a nice surprise encounter in town with Steve and Trish from s/v Curious, who have gained a daughter and son-in-law for a few weeks of South Islanding, and were about to board a bus for a 6-hour nature tour. We opted for a self-guided tour of the wonders of the Otago Peninsula, and on a tip from Michael and Gloria, who are a day or so ahead of us now, we headed to a beach halfway up the picturesque peninsula to hopefully catch the little blue penguins feeding. That turned out to be a flop, we were way too early for the return of the little penguin flotillas from their day of fishing, but we had a nice romp down some deep, soft sand dunes, and even spotted Michael and Gloria walking back on the beach. We climbed the sandy hill back to the parking lot together, then they went off towards Mt. Cook and we towards a campsite for the night.
After securing the last powered spot in the campground in the little town of Portobello, we drove out to the Royal Albatross Centre to, hopefully, get a close-up view of those magnificent birds. When we first arrived in the parking lot a few were soaring overhead, getting the last of the lift off the dying breeze, but in short order the wind died, and the birds flew out to sea. We signed on for the last tour of the day at the centre and learned quite a bit about these beautiful birds. Once they fledge, they head off across the southern ocean and don't set foot on land for 5 years. With a massive 3-meter wing span, and a mechanism on the innermost wing joint that allows them to lock it in a gliding position for hours and days, they're made for speed and energy-conservation, wind permitting. They're not good flappers, really, and as we moved on to the observatory on the top of the hill with our guide, we witnessed that reality: numerous birds were down on the water gliding and flapping, trying to get enough lift to come back up to the top of the hill to feed their young. They would gain some altitude, soar awhile, then drop back down, right to the surface of the water where they glide in ground-effect for a bit of rest, then begin the tiring flapping again. One bird, who we watched on a screen thanks to a camera mounted on top of the observatory, sat atop the hill, waiting for a breeze, testing the wind, walking this way and that. At length he walked around the corner into our view out the windows, and we watched as he sniffed for a north wind. Nothing. He'd stretch his wings and flap, testing the lifting capabilities, and then tuck them back, mechanically folding the 3-part wings behind him. Finally he decided to give it a running start down the hill, flapping like mad, running awkwardly down the steep grassy slope, only to end in a comical but embarrassing tumble. It took him a few minutes to get back up and compose his pride, shaking his head and seeming to hope nobody noticed. He clambered back up the hill and paced for awhile, until it was time for us to go. We did see one chick, sitting unattended in a nest, waiting for parents to return with food, nervously pulling grass into his nest with his outstretched beak.
By then we were hungry, and drove back to town for a delightful meal at one of the few restaurants in Portobello, passing the time until dusk, when we headed back out to the point, this time for another attempt at seeing little blue penguins. The blue penguins are the world's smallest, standing about 12 inches tall. We're at the end of the nesting season, and as such the number of penguins coming ashore to feed their young is waning. We were told by the DOC guide as we arrived at the beach that we could expect to see only 20 or 30 of them that night, as opposed to a hundred or more a few weeks earlier. We stood in the dirt a few hundred feet back from the beach, and were instructed on how to behave so as not to scare the penguins. If scared, they return to the sea and do not feed their chicks that night. So no cameras, no flashlights, no movement, no talking. As darkness fell we were told to sit down in small groups, leaving space between us in case the returning penguins needed to pass between. It was an amazing experience to sit silently on the wet sand, huddled into our jackets in the cool night air, with 30 other people all as quiet as a breath, waiting.
On the little mound in front of us, in the faint light mounted on a pole by the DOC, bunnies hopped about, and 2 little penguin chicks waited in a hole for their parents to return, one only about 8 inches tall. After 20 minutes or so the penguins started arriving, toddling in from the beach two or more at a time, teeny-tiny adorable little things that we could barely see in the darkness, save for the glow of their brilliant white breasts and their characteristic side-to-side movements. A few of them came right up to us, I think it must have been quite confusing for them to have us all there, still as stones, blocking their path. They would come up within a foot or two, stop, look left, look right, turn around, make a call to their mate, and then, taking a deep breath I imagine, forge right in between two people. I was proud of us as a group, not a whisper was heard, not a gasp of delight as we watched as silently as we could while these lovely little critters came right within our reach.
The most beautiful part of the night was hearing their calls. A good number of them got by us without our seeing them, perhaps behind us, or over the little mound behind the bunnies, because we began to hear their calls to each other in the scrubby hills around us: almost meow-like calls, answered by a warbling chatter. More and more of them began to call, until the hills all around were rich with the echos of tiny penguins. It was -- I don't know -- I'm running out of adjectives and superlatives in this dang country, and at the risk of unavoidable redundancy, I have to say it was awe-inspiring. Amazing, beautiful, delightful, and truly special.
After all that phantasmagorical stuff, we had a long, deep sleep in our icy-cold camper van under piles of blankets and our $5 sleeping bag, and spent a bit of time in downtown Dunedin the next day. I decided I love Dunedin, and would like to spend more time on another visit. It's got a very sweet downtown, busy and city-like but old-fashioned, hilly, cosmopolitan, casual, fancy -- all mixed up and quite intriguing. So intriguing, in fact, that my senses cried Uncle and we ducked into a movie theatre in the afternoon and saw "The King's Speech." (Fantastic!)
After that diversion, we drove north a bit farther to see the Moeraki Boulders. More redundant superlatives and adjectives are coming ... stand by, I have to check which ones I haven't used lately ... oh, here are a few: Other-worldly. Inexplicable. Big, round boulders, perfectly formed, like little planets -- two feet high to as tall as 5 feet high, dropped on the beach like celestial croquet balls. Some cracked open on landing, maybe, looking like huge eggs from which a prehistoric dinosaur or baby space alien climbed out of. Most stayed intact in perfect spheres, nestled in groups or strewn apart, taking up maybe a quarter of a km of space on an otherwise normal-looking beach. This rock-lover was struck almost speechless, if you can imagine me being speechless.
And now, after another chilly night of camping, we're off to the Mt. Cook Glacier. Whew! Ouch! It's all so fantastic it hurts!