Thursday, April 15, 2010

Dispatch 54 New Zealand Hot Spots

5 March - 12 March, 2010

New Zealand sits on a fault line between the Australian and Pacific tectonic plates. That fault line goes right through the middle of the North Island where the crust of the earth is particularly thin and there are several active volcanoes. Naturally, Maori folklore has many interesting theories for the natural disasters having to do with their mythical ancestors, but, truly, the area is worthy of some magical thinking.

We finally left Auckland on a sunny day after tidying up a few loose ends. We bought a car

instead of a van. We had decided that we would “tent” our way around the country and buy a slightly newer era car focusing on the seller rather than, per se, the car. As a result we ended up buying what is referred to here as a rather “flash” car, that is, an Audi A4 in beautiful condition. It has been a dream on the road so far if a bit of a challenge to fit all our camping gear into. My work permit finally came through and we heard the day we left Auckland that Richard’s had been approved as well. We got an extension from Customs to allow our boat to stay in the country duty-free for another year and, at the very last second, we learned our jib repairs were done (the UV protection layer for those of you who might care about those kinds of things) and our inverter had been repaired as well. Qayaq was tucked away for the duration as best we could.

And off we went! We visited Muruwai beach, a beautiful black sand beach on the Tasman Sea near Auckland and surveyed the large Gannet colony that nests there with their chicks.

They nest just out of “pecking range” as the information sign says, which is to say, pretty close to one another. Gannets are a beautiful huge bird with a lovely yellow head.

From there we headed to Rotorua, the center of geologic activity on the North Island. This also happens to be a center of Maori civilization. The area has steaming land forms as one drives along and many volcano cone type land formations.

We chose to visit the village of Whakarewarewa where Maori families still live in a wild geothermal hot spot. Only 20 something families can live there because they can only build on

solid rock—anything less than

that could sink into a hot pool at any moment. Many areas of the village were fenced off having recently become hot pools. The villagers literally bath and cook using the natural pools there.

Many of the pools stay at 100 degress Celcius, boiling temperature. We ate corn cooked in one of these pools. There are also boxes scattered through the village that are natural ovens where chicken is roasted, veggies cooked. Our guide was very amusing and really brought the village alive. There are geysers on one edge of the village. The tour ended with a demonstration on making decorative skirts from flax and traditional Maori song and dance.

Maori carving and dance show signs to us of more Indonesian influence than strictly Polynesian. For instance, in the dance, eye position plays a role, seen in Balinese dance. It was a fascinating day and we walked around more of the geothermal area to observe after the tour. The area reminded us of Yellowstone and, indeed, there are limestone terraces that have formed in the area, but some of the most famous were destroyed in the 1800’s by the volcano eruption of Tarewa. Of course, as you’d expect, there are hot springs everywhere and the motor camp we stayed in had their own pools which we enjoyed.

The next day we went to another volcanic/ geothermal area:


There we walked the self-guided tour past gorgeous hot pools, gurgling mud pools and limestone formations all within a gorgeous forest area. Truly the area held us spellbound.

From there we went to Tongariro National Park to “tramp” (hike) “arguably the best day hike in New Zealand” according to the Lonely Planet. The area is known to “Lord of the Ring” fans by a familiar outline of one of the volcanic peaks, Ngauruhoe, known in the movie as Mt. Doom. The day we hiked, Mt Doom showed none of its lightning from the sky and other special effects from the movie folks, in fact it looked picturesque and placid.

The other two volcanoes on the hike were Ruapehu, the most active of the three with the last eruption in 2007 and a fairly major one in 1995. The last volcano is Mt. Tongariro which is the oldest and quietest of the three. The tramp is challenging, 19.4 km (around 11.5 miles), climbing up between 2 of the

volcanoes, past 2 craters, emerald lakes colored by the volcanic minerals and down the north slope of Mt. Tongariro ending in a lovely forest with a cute little waterfall near the end. It was a hike that provided nearly everything—sunshine to start, clouds and mist by the end and scenery to die for. We were tired but fulfilled by the end. Oh, and we did the hike with over a hundred other people! One thing that puzzled us having been there is why the hobbits took such a difficult path to Mordor—I mean there are boardwalks and stairways to get you up the track—why take the hard way? The area was so beautiful we stayed and did another hike the following day, a bit shorter we must admit.

The weather has turned quite a bit cooler on us as we head into fall here. In fact the nights have been, at times, frankly, COLD. So, we learned that these camp parks we’ve been using also often provide basic cabins in addition to tent sites. No bathroom, use of a communal facility for toilet and kitchen, but inside nonetheless. We decided we are too soft to stay in the tent in this weather and have started to sleep indoors. Wimps, we know.

We headed down to Wellington by way of the west coast where we stayed in a beach camp but discovered a terribly cute town called Foxton on our drive. This little place must have more museums per square kilometer than any place we’ve ever been. And the buildings were well preserved, the stores full of cute stuff.

Wellington is another marvelous artsy city. We literally spent most of a day at the fantastic museum called Te Papa. It was 6 floors of fascinating exhibits that somehow managed to have just enough to be interesting, enough interactive parts to the display to keep us awake and not to overwhelm. The visiting exhibit was about the city of Pompeii buried by volcanic ash complete with a 3D movie. It was so well done and even more fascinating given our recent visit to the volcanic central plateau. We ate lunch at the café and stayed for more. Just as we were leaving the museum, the city was hit by a fluke storm that was unpredicted. Now Wellington is often referred to as “Windy Welly” so wind is no stranger. And Wellington sits on Cook Strait where, when we first arrived in the country, gale force winds were being warned about 5 days out of 7. Still, this storm really blew people out of the water, or, in one case of a yacht racer, into the water. It came on in minutes with black clouds that suddenly poured rain sideways. We just sat down in the museum lobby to watch the carnage. Literally people were having trouble standing up against the wind. We learned the next day that the peak gusts were 150 km/hr. (around 90 mph!) The storm came from the south (Antarctica) bringing cold with it—the temperature dropped 11 degrees Celcius in minutes!! We sat and waited and finally braved the rain to find ourselves a place for dinner. We had a great dinner and finally drove “home” to our motor camp. That was the moment we learned that our “flash” car did have one defect—the heat doesn’t work. Oops, that might prove to be a problem this winter!

The next day, we took in more of the city. We were there during their arts festival so we stopped in some galleries. Since the weather was beautiful the second day, we took the cable car to the Botanic Garden.

This garden is huge and beautiful and thickly forested and planted. It was really remarkable. We had another great lunch at the café there and walked back down to town in the afternoon sunshine.

We wandered Cuba Street, one of the retail centers and finished with a drink on the waterfront with live music reaching us from a variety of venues nearby. It was a great short visit and I definitely want to go back. The city has a picturesque harbor from which we depart to take the ferry across Cook Strait to the South Island.

We’ve had to get used to the idea that heading further south means the world gets colder. I suppose we’ll just have to buck up and get used to it. While we walk around in several layers topped with fleece, our Kiwi friends are often barefoot in shorts and t-shirt. In New Zealand there are no signs that say “no shoes - no service” as stores would not have any customers in most cases. In Auckland we have seen women walking out of their office jobs “barefoot” carrying their shoes in their hands. We have a lot to learn! But I bought a new “jumper” (kind of a sweater of merino wool—but feels more like fleece) today that the saleswoman assured me was “toasty as.” That’s good because it’s getting under 10 degrees at night (Celcius)!