03/15/2011, Opua, North Island, New Zealand
We are now in the final phase of our Trans-Pacific Odyssey, our Right-Instead-of-Left Adventure. We've pared down to the third and smallest version of our stuff -- which started with a reduction from house to boat, then from boat to camper, and now, from camper to guest quarters aboard s/v Paikea Mist.
Our last days in m/v Henny Quarters were good. We snared a fantastic slab of beachfront property in the Top 10 Holiday Resort (they don't even call that one a campground) in Papamoa, near Tauranga on the east coast, and from there we ventured off to the airport for further forays into the Kiwi aviation scene. Friday Allan finally got his ride in a 1940 Tiger Moth; Saturday we flew in a DC-3; Sunday we had an unofficial home stay on a 10-acre ranch; Monday it was back to Auckland, and now we're on the northeast coast in Opua.
Allan's Tiger Moth ride with Andrew, the museum's head dude and all-around great guy, went perfectly. It took a bit of effort to make the Tiger ride happen -- most people want a ride in the Boeing Stearman biplane, which they keep more readily available in the big hangar. The Tiger, on the other hand, is tucked back along the side and doesn't get out much. All the museum volunteers were out helping and observing as she was pulled from the hangar and fueled by hand from a high ladder, a precarious job that requires heaving the fuel jug overhead and carefully pouring fuel into a funnel, trying not to spill or drip into the open cockpit below. ("Andrew owes me a beer for this one" muttered John as he hauled the jug up the ladder.)
Allan was suited up in an olive-colored flight suit that the museum had procured from US military surplus, looking right at home in the very garb he wore for 21 years in the Air National Guard. I got a few photos of them taxiing out, dragging an ever-increasing blob of grass behind the tail skid (really old tail draggers had no tail wheel -- just a curved skid -- which is how they got their name.) Andrew gave Allan a great ride over the coastline and the local area on a spectacular day, meanwhile I drank tea and wandered through the museum's hangar. 40 minutes later they dragged back in, looking wind-blown and happy. The dream of flying a Canadian de Havilland Tiger Moth now realized, Allan hesitantly peeled the flight suit off and we went in search of a few friends we'd made the day before in nearby hangars.
Saturday was the DC-3 ride and, after having coffee with the lovely couple in the camp site next to us on the beach and sharing our shock over the Japan earthquake and tsunami (continuing our vigilance of prayers there) we packed up HQ and headed back to Tauranga airport. Another Andrew was at the helm for that flight, a terrific and very funny guy who we liked immediately. And Kiwis are so friendly, (although Andrew is an Ozzie) that within 10 minutes of meeting us he'd invited us to come spend the night with his family on their 10 acres south of Auckland. More on that later. The DC-3 ride was fun, a quick 20-minute low-flying zoom over the coastline, (we snapped an aerial photo of our neighbors in the camp ground and emailed it to them later.) After the flight we did a bit more visiting, said farewell (but not before being graciously gifted with patches and pins from our museum friends) and drove north to the Coromandel peninsula, a part of the North Island that we've been meaning to explore for the last 2 months and had left to the very end.
But to date it remains unexplored: we stopped short at the Miranda Hot Springs and spent the night at a great camp with a big, lovely natural hot pool. The Miranda Hot Springs is close enough to Auckland that it seems to be the final stop for many campers and motor homes before they are returned to the rental companies, so people are cleaning and off-loading extraneous stuff, including piles of gourmet food - jams, coffee, cookies, canned goods. It would be a good place to stock up on the front end -- just get there before 10 am and watch for the frazzled tourists walking to the communal kitchen with armloads of goodies to give away ...
We made a quick stop at the Miranda Bird Stopover, where migrating Godwits come to feed after their 11,000 mile journey from Alaska, and then it was on to, yes, another airport. Ardmore Airport south of Auckland has yet another cool collection of historic aircraft, and was the designated spot where we were to meet Andrew the DC-3 Captain so we could follow him to his home for the night. Andrew was a bit delayed, so we fell into conversation with a couple who invited us to climb aboard the big Catalina PBY, the huge seaplane that had just returned from a scenic flight. (We missed it by a few hours!) We sat happily in the old boat-plane and chatted with Dee, the world's first (and only?) female PBY Captain. Andrew arrived around 5:30 and we were off through the countryside, following him to his beautiful 10-acres of horse and cow and cat and kid ranch.
We parked HQ down by the barn and had a relaxing evening tossing balls with their 3-year old daughter Lexy and holding 4-month-old Charlie, petting their delightful cat and watching the furry cows -- Scottish Highland Longhairs (or something) grazing in the paddock. Caroline had made a fantastic lasagne, and I had brought some rather abysmal chocolate cookies which we redeemed with blobs of ice cream. Being guests on their little slice of paradise was a real treat, and we feel a bit more bonded with New Zealand having finally had a "home stay."
The next morning we laboriously cleaned out HQ, trying to organize things into those smaller versions of our stuff before we took the bus north to spend a few days with Michael and Gloria. But first, a stop in Auckland, where we returned our metal box-of-a-home for the last 6 weeks (not without a few tears) and had one last night on s/v Curious with Steve and Trish.
And now, once again, we're homeless. Through the kindness of friends we have a roof over our heads, and it's a perfect ending to our fabulous 18-month Odyssey: 5 days aboard beautiful Paikea Mist with our dear friends Michael and Gloria, sailing in the Bay of Islands. Michael is busily finishing off a few projects with Allan's help, and Gloria and I, having put away the last of the groceries, are tapping away on our tiny laptops. Outside, a mix of sun, puffy clouds, and a soft NW breeze are calling for one last sailing trip.
And then: home -- how odd that will be!
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 ...