Mount Ngauruhoe from the crater wall of Tongariro
Our North Island trip started, of course, in Auckland. Every major road South from Northland goes through Auckland which is why, when there's a lockdown in New Zealand's biggest city, the whole North Island is affected. Auckland is all set up to host the America's Cup races. Each team competing has its own hangers next to the docks where the boats are pulled out of the water at night because not a speck of algy can settle on its hull to slow them down. We saw one boat, maybe 60 feet long, hanging from a crane having its hull power washed. This boat is much bigger than Rapture but it looked like a toy hanging in its cradle. Posters and bunting hang everywhere and TVs in bars and restaurants blare ads featuring the boats that fly. They are truly amazing. However, the pandemic has cramped the excitement. The expected crowds have not arrived. Between races, the hotels are almost empty. It was eerie at our Travelodge being the only guests on our floor. We could not find a coffee shop open at 7:30 in the morning. The traffic in the city was silent by 9:30pm. And then, four days after we left Auckland a family came down with Covid. These were the first community cases in New Zealand since August last year and it has had ripple effects throughout our trip.
After Auckland we drove to Hamilton where we absolutely had to visit Hobbiton. Again, it was not overrun by tourists; there were just 10 people on our tour bus. It is a lovely place, peaceful and bucolic and easy to visualize Frodo,Sam and the Sackville Bagginses running around. We also visited the Hamilton Gardens, highly recommended, and the Waitomo caves where we had just three of us in the group. Having the place almost to ourselves to marvel at the glow worm galaxies on the cave roof was just magical.
In the Surrealist section of the Hamilton Gardens
Frodo's hobbit hole
Perspective studies for the little Hobbits and Giant wizard
Outside the Green Dragon
The ale only come in half pints
Now was time for the big adventure. We met with John and Janet (from Tango) to climb the Tongariro Crossing trail. This trail is 19.4 km across an an active volcano steaming and smoking where the footage for Mount Doom was filmed. It's a day hike so no packs necessary and the trail is well maintained with steps and boardwalks. There are three parts to this hike. First the Devil's staircase 697 steps up the side of the volcano. From the top we could see the string of volcanos marching West tracing the hotspot on this edge of the tectonic plate. Then we walked across the crater surrounded by lumpy piles of pitch black lava where Sam and Frodo hid from the Orcks in the movie. The last part was sliding down the talus slope and then walking endlessly down switchback after switchback until we slipped gratefullly into the Podocarp forest at the base. It took us 8 hours to walk the twelve miles. We were relieved that we still can do this after all the sitting around on the boat. Normally it would be very crowded with large groups and a continuous stream of hikers strung along the whole trail but we experienced only one large group. All the hikers were going the same direction so we hardly noticed the company.
Greg with a ranger cut-out
Crossing the Central crater of Tongariro
The Covid case in Auckland broke out just as we came off the mountain. John and Janet had to skedaddle back to Tango in Marsden Cove before the 3-day lockdown went into effect at midnight.Only the city was affected so we spent the time nursing our sore feet and muscles at a lovely Airbnb where Anne, the proprietor, made us a delicious home cooked roast chicken dinner with two huge bowls of vegetables (You know how you miss vegetables when you're traveling!) and visiting the open air geothermal features around Taupo. Day three was a long drive all the way over to the East coast to Lake Waikaremoana (Why-curry-moo-ana) for our next adventure.There was a front expected and we wanted to get there before the rain.
It started raining just as we showed up at the Holiday Park (camping/caravan park) after a windy, bumpy drive over mostly gravel roads. We'd booked into the Fisherman's cabin, a tiny one room hut with a microwave, an electric frying pan and a kettle. What more could you want? We nabbed a half dozen eggs at the local general store and cooked up a scrambled eggs on toast with Chipotle in Adobo sauce bought at a fancy import store in Hamilton. With a bottle of Chianti (corkscrew required) we were set for the night while the rain fell straight and heavy outside.
And it was still bucketing down the next morning. Rather than head out in the deluge, we changed our reservations to stay an extra night in the Fisherman's cottage. In normal times we would never have been able to get a vacancy at such short notice but once again, there was plenty of availability. We spent all day in our little hut, without internet, watching the rain and reading, gearing up for the climb the next day.
The trail starts by climbing 2000 feet in 5 miles. It was still drizzling and the mud was thick but most of the climb is through thick old growth forest, so we didn't have to deal with the wind or horizontal rain. This climb is made worthwhile by the magnificent views but all we saw was cloud. We enjoyed the huge trees covered with epiphytes and lichens and the gloomy tangle of undergrowth smelling of wet earth and humus. Bats are the only native mammals in New Zealand. Possums, for their fur and stoats to control rabbits, (and rats and cats and dogs) have been introduced and they are decimating the bird population. These old growth rain forests are habitat for rare Kiwis, flightless parrots and green pigeons but the rain was keeping most of the birds undercover so the forest was very quiet and still. The good part was that the trail was short and that there is the hut Panekire at the top. Well, the hut was dry at least, and had mattresses on the bunks. When we arrived, it was cold and dank with wet clothes hanging everywhere as people took shelter for the night. Fortunately, one of them was a hero and went out to find semi dry wood to start the fire. Soon, the hut warmed up and people started cooking on their camping stoves and talking to one another. Billy, the outdoorsman from Invercargill in the extreme South of New Zealand even produced gin and a plastic soda stream device to make tonic which he very kindly shared with us. After a dinner of reconstituted freeze-dried "food", we retreated to our warm sleeping bags to rest our sore muscles. With ear plugs, we were soon asleep.
The next day was downhill all the way. Fortunately, our knees held out but the toe nails took a beating again. It was only a three hour hike so we were the first to arrive at the lake level hut by lunch time. This hut was much cleaner and in better repair than Panekire. It had stopped raining and the sun was out. We spent the afternoon basking on the beach, watching the black swans and coots and sleeping in the quiet. People started arriving at around 4:00pm and immediately stripped off and went swimming. I really regretted not bringing a swimsuit. This time Greg performed fire duty and made everyone happy until bedtime.
Into the wild
Old growth forest
Our rewarding view from the Panekire Hut
What the view would have been like on a clearer day
The map showed that our next leg was 17km over flat terrain next to the lake. Huh! Not so much. The trail was a constant up and down over ridges with rocks and streams and muddy patches to negotiate. The big rivers had suspension bridges and the swamps had boardwalks but the infrastructure is starting to show wear. Although this is classified as a Great Walk, it is not maintained as well as some of the more famous hikes (that we will do on our South Island adventure in March), Being day three, our feet and shoulders were sore, but our packs were lighter as we ate through our supplies. The Waiharuru hut was awesome and (or because) it had a warden. He greeted arriving hikers and showed them around, enjoying the conversations and interactions. In the evening, he patrolled, looking out for Kiwi birds and showing anyone who was interested the nature in the area. The sleeping dormitory is separate from the dining shelter so it is much quieter except when people come back from dinner forgetting that someone might be sleeping. Earplugs are a necessity.
Suspension bridge over the river
Finally, we walked out early the next morning. We only had two hours to walk to meet the water taxi that would take us back to the Holiday Park where we had left our car. We were able to take a quick shower before driving to our next Airbnb in Napier where we found out that the lockdown in Auckland had been lifted because contact tracing and testing had discoved a cluster the high school. The whole high school was closed and all students told to self isolate. We treated ourselves to a late lunch at the Mission Winery, hence the need for a shower. After all the freeze dried food, the rich lamb chops and wine was delicious but a bit of a shock on the digestive system.
Our last stop was Wellington. What a great city. It is compact enough to walk to all the sights, including the National Te Papa museum and the botanical garden at the top of the funicular. On the last day, a new cluster of cases was discovered and we spent a nervous 24 hours wondering if Auckland would lockdown gain and cut us off from the boat. There's much more to discover and if we're not trapped in Northland, we will have that opportunity when we go through Wellington on the way to the South Island in March.
Check out the gallery for more pictures from this recent excursion away from Rapture