Taupo, New Zealand, November 29
New Zealand (Part 1)
Unfortunately, our flight from Melbourne to Auckland had been cancelled we discovered upon arrival at Melbourne Airport. (Yes, we did forget to confirm the flight...) The very nice people at Air New Zealand were able to get on a flight a few hours later and they even gave us food vouchers to get some free grub while waiting around the airport! (Does that happen in the States??) Our flight to Auckland landed after midnight, so instead of heading into the city, we just stayed in the terminal at the airport. This worked out pretty well as the place was nearly empty and quiet and we were able to read some letters from home before getting a couple hours of sleep. Around seven o'clock, we tracked down a guy from the campervan rental desk and were able to secure a reservation. (See www.backpackercampervans.com for details.) From what we'd been hearing campervans were a good way to see New Zealand, as you can sleep and cook in them, and they make it easier to get to some of the wilderness destinations that are not serviced by public transportation. However, one wasn't available for a week, so we would have to come back.
We headed into Auckland and stayed at the YHA Hostel for a couple days (the first day taken up mostly with sleeping). We walked around Auckland a bit, rode up the Sky Tower, New Zealand's tallest structure at 328 meters (see www.skycity.co.nz.), and did a bit of shopping.
To fill the second half of the week before picking up our campervan, we headed up to Paihia in the Bay of Islands region in northern New Zealand on a Kiwi Experience tour. Paihia is a small town which serves as a starting point for many water-based activities and bushwalks in the surrounding region.
We stayed at the Lodge Eleven hostel in Paihia. The most notable thing about the hostel was the incredibly affable older gentleman working the reception desk. With a constant smile and a twinkle in his eye, he was a Kiwi to the bone. After our first encounter he became "Mr. No-Worries", due to his utter mastery of the local vernacular.
"Mr. No-Worries, can we get an extra pillow?"
"No worries, mate!"
"Mr. No-Worries, can we leave our backpacks in the storage room today?"
"No worries, mate!"
"Mr. No-Worries, you're on fire!"
"No worries, mate!!"
We did some hiking through the Horotutu Reserve and Opua Forest to see the Haruru Falls. We passed by the town of Waitangi, which is a significant area in New Zealand's history. (The Treaty of Waitangi was signed here in 1840. That treaty signalled the native Maori acceptance of British governorship, while granting the Maori people citizenship and land rights.) We saw several signs informing us that we were in natural Kiwi (the bird, not the fruit) habitat, but we didn't see any. (Turns out they are nocturnal.) There were also signs vehemently prohibiting any dogs in the area. (Apparently, dogs eat Kiwis and a few years ago one lone hungry dog consumed several hundred birds.) On our second day, we took a ferry across the bay to the town of Russell and did some more hiking through the Kororeka Point Scenic Reserve and the Flagstaff Hill Historical Reserve.
We spent Thanksgiving in Paihia at the hostel. We fixed up a Thanksgiving dinner of chicken stir fry, yams, and potatoes with apple pie for dessert. Not as good as home, but not bad for being on the road.
On our last day in the Bay of Islands, we went on a "Swim with the Dolphins" trip, where you actually have the chance to get in the water and play around with either bottlenose or common dolphins. Very exciting stuff, we thought. However, the marketing material fails to state that it is New Zealand law that swimming with any pod of dolphins is not allowed if there are any young dolphins present. That seems to have been our case. We did run into a large (hundreds) pod of common dolphins, and we were able to see them up close swimming alongside of the boat and just ahead of the bow. We also saw two adult male killer whales (Orcas) hunting for food in shallow water, as well as an adult female and her calf. The guide told us that the males like to hunt for large stingrays in the shallow water. They will each keep nudging the stingray from either side until they are close enough to be able to each grab a wing in their mouth and rip it in half. Yum. After the boat trip, we were dropped off on Urupukapuka Island where we did a bit of hiking through heavily sheep-infested hills and along a rocky beach with perfectly clear blue water. It was quite beautiful.
After heading back to Auckland and spending another night sleeping over in the airport, we were able to pick up our campervan. After doing a few laps around the parking lot to get used to driving on the lefthand side of the road (and also to get used to sitting on the right while having the gear shift on your left side - yep, it's a five speed!), we headed right to the grocery store and stocked our tiny refrigerator. We consulted the map and guide books, and made a plan. Our first stop would be Rotorua, in the heart of the North Island's volcanic region. Not two hours later we were calling a tow truck to come and winch us out of a ditch alongside of a river in a park where we had stopped for lunch. I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to guess who was driving.
Once in the Rotorua area, we stopped by Waiotapu and saw the bubbling thermal mud pools. The whole place stunk of sulphur. Next we headed to a place called Kerosene Creek, which the guide book stated was the only free, publically accessible hotwater spring in the area. After much trepidation, we found the unmarked gravel road that lead to the creek. A few cars and campervans were parked to the side of the road and some people were standing around towelling off. We walked down a path next to the steaming creek to a small waterfall with a round pool underneath. Two people were lazing about in the pool. At the back of the pool was a large white sign with red lettering: "WARNING: Thermal waters are known to contain amoebic meningitis. To prevent risk of infection, do not put head under water." Well, that's about all Sue needed to hear. We were back in the campervan heading up the gravel road faster than you can snort a creepy-crawly.
We parked for the night further up the road at the edge of a lake and awoke to a good amount of steam coming off the water. Upon closer inspection, the lake seemed to be another body of volcanically heated water, and after breakfast we were on our way to Waimangu Volcanic Valley. This area was formed by the eruption of the Tarawera Volcano in 1886. (See www.waimangu.com.) We hiked through the valley and observed large, thermal Waimangu Cauldron as well as the pale blue Frying Pan Lake in the silica-coated volcanic crater. At the end of the trail at Lake Rotomahana, we caught a bus back to the trailhead and headed off toward our next destination, Waitomo.
The big attraction in Waitomo is the Glowworm Cave (see www.waitomocaves.co.nz). The series of caves has some interesting stalagmites and stalactites, as well as an underground river. After boarding a boat, we entered a couple of large caverns in which the ceilings were covered with thousands of tiny points of light - glowworms. The best analogy is looking at the stars in a clear night sky. We couldn't take any pictures down there, because the flash upsets the glowworms, turning them into noglowworms, apparently.
Since we caught the last tour of the day and it was getting late, we camped in the carpark of the Glowworm Cave. The next morning we headed south, since we were planning on catching a ferry from Wellington to the South Island in a couple of days. We stopped for a while in at Whakapapa Village in Tongoriro National Park to have a look and see if it was worth a visit. After seeing the snow-covered Tongoriro, Ngauruhoe, and Ruapehu volcanoes, we decided that it was. During the afternoon, we did a short two-hour hike to Taranaki Falls, near the base of the volcanoes. We parked for the night near the deserted base of the Whakapapa Ski Area (their winter is our summer, so ski season is over). En route we discovered that our campervan has absolutely no pickup whatsoever. It was pretty interesting to see a ski resort area without a single tree. The whole mountain is a huge plain of jagged volcanic rocks.
The next morning, we rose very early in order to catch a shuttle to the trailhead for the Tongoriro Crossing (see www.tongoriro crossing.com). This hike is billed as "the finest one-day walk in New Zealand", so we didn't want to miss out. The hike takes several hours to complete and winds for 17 km (about 10.5 miles) along some rugged but spectacular terrain. The track leads through the Mangatepopo Valley, then up the steep Mangatepopo Saddle between Mount's Ngauruhoe and Tongariro, through the South Crater, then up an windswept, alpine ridge to the Red Crater at 1886 meters (6188 feet). At this point we were in the clouds with visibility of just a few feet and the wind was freezing and blowing hard. Picture films of climbing to the summit of Mt. Everest without the snow and that's kind of what it was like. Or, at least it seemed so at the time. You couldn't really hear much because of the wind and your hat and hood being tightly pulled around your head. Basically, you just had to watch for the person in front of you and pick your way up through the rocky ridge, minding the steep drop off to the side. Finally we hit the summit, and began to descend through some really sandy volcanic soil to the Blue and Emerald Lakes, the results of three water-filled explosion craters. Minerals leaching into the lakes from the adjoining thermal area give them a brilliant greenish color. Past this, we finally headed over a ridge which blocked the wind and we stopped for lunch next to a big comfortable rock. I was so hungry that I dug right into our bag of sandwiches and swallowed half of Sue's only extra special peanut-butter-and-apricot-jelly sandwich, before I realized it was hers. She was not amused. The remaining three hours of the hike took us through some tussock slopes into a podocarp-hardwood forest. We finally limped through the exit gate to the roadend parking area and pretty much collapsed on the grass. Including rest stops, we finished the whole hike in just about seven hours.
After catching a shuttle back to our campervan at the park visitor center, we showered at a park campsite and tried to figure out what to do next. I called to make a reservation for the Interislander Ferry in Wellington, which connects the North and South Islands of New Zealand, and found out that the earliest available spot for a campervan was in four days. So, we checked the map and headed north a couple of hours to Lake Taupo, which is a world-famous spot for trout fishing. We arrived after dark and after some arguing and driving around without a detailed map of the area, we found a place to camp at Reid's Farm along the Waikato River near Huka Falls. The next day we spent doing laundry and Sue did a bunch of shopping while I updated the web site. We camped again at Reid's Farm and this morning we did a few hours of fly fishing for rainbow trout. Our guide, Adam from Go Fish Taupo, brought us to some of the secret local fishing holes on one of the rivers that runs into Lake Taupo. Since the trout are in their spawning season and not doing much surface feeding, we used a fly fishing method called nymphing, which basically involves allowing your lure to drag along the bottom of the river through pools where trout are likely to be hanging out. Unfortunately, we didn't catch any fish, but we did manage to get the fly casting technique down while looking quite sharp in our hip waders.
Tonight we're staying in Taupo again and tomorrow we'll be heading south toward Wellington to catch the ferry to the South Island.
(Note that I have updated the Picture Gallery section of the web site with some digital video clips.)
View of Auckland from the Sky Tower with Mt. Rangitoto in the background
Dave in a crazy tree in Horotutu Reserve
Mangrove swamp in Horotutu Reserve
Sue making Thanksgiving dinner in the kitchen of the Lodge Eleven hostel in Paihia
Thanksgiving Dinner, Paihia
Kororareka Bay, near Russell in the Bay of Islands
Killer whales (Orca), mother and calf
Waitangi Track, Bay of Islands
Orca (adult male)
Thermal mud pool in Waiotapu, near Rotorua
gurgle, gurgle, gurgle, POP!
Steam rising from volcanically heated lake
Waimangu Cauldron in Waimangu Volcanic Valley
Frying Pan Lake, Waimangu Volcanic Valley
Thermal vent, Waimangu Volcanic Valley
Dave filtering water next to our way cool campervan, Waitomo Caves
Mount Ruapehu, Tongoriro National Park
Taranaki Falls Track, Tongoriro National Park (Mount Ngauruhoe in background)
Taranaki Falls, Tongoriro National Park
Tarakani Falls, Tongoriro National Park
Top of Taranaki Falls, Tongoriro National Park
Mount Ngauruhoe in the clouds, Tongoriro National Park
Soda Springs, Tongoriro National Park
Mangatepopo Valley, Tongoriro National Park
Mount Ngaurahoe, Tongoriro National Park
Rest break before entering the South Crater on the Tongoriro Crossing, Tongoriro National Park
South Crater of Mount Tongoriro, Tongoriro National Park
Emerald Lake, Tongoriro Crossing, Tongoriro National Park
Dave, Adam and the Empty Net
Stylish Fishing Wear