Andrew's Poorly Planned yet Phenomenal Peregrination in the Pacific, Part 2

Previous entry.

So how did you like the cliffhanger?  Luckily, I'm not as cruel as most TV stations and you don't need to wait till next season, week, or even day!  Both of these should arrive in your inbox at about the same time!  I might not plan my vacations, but I can keep my email organized.

In the long list before, you'll likely recall seeing beer mentioned reasonably often.  As some background (and probably most of what I'll bother to say on the subject), a friend of a friend happens to be the brewer at one of the better Auckland microbreweries (Epic Brewing Company).  While the brewer was out of town on business while I was around, he was kind enough to suggest a list of pubs to try with a good selection of brews.  I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of New Zealand beers (and somewhat surprised I don't see more of them around--they seem to specialize in hoppy brews, which usually travel well anyway).  As I had no similar recommendations for NZ wines and some of the pubs had free internet (a seemingly rare commodity down in the Tasman), I stuck to trying the various options here.  Sadly, the beer taxes are as bad as Australia (slightly worse than Canada)...but it was still cheaper than paying for internet (or so I convinced myself after a couple pints).

That's a lot of background to work through just to get to the story...sorry.  But here we go!  In the interest of not writing a book, I'll try and stick to the more interesting parts.

So we'll start with Goat Island Marine Reserve.  Somewhat interesting nautical background to the name.  Goat islands are places sailors would leave a herd of goats that ships could restock their meat stores from along the coast, marked on the map most of the time.  There are several of them around New Zealand.  This one likely never even had a significant goat population and would have been something of a red herring.  Luckily, as the other part of the name implies, herrings could fit in well here.

As some of you know, my dad dragged a bunch of snorkeling equipment all the way around the world and through Australia, hoping to find a decent place to snorkel.  He failed, and took all the equipment home with him.  The day after, I randomly stumble upon what appears to be one of the best places in the world for it.  While I didn't get to go snorkeling, a glass bottomed boat ride showed me schools of snapper, eagle rays, sea urchins, and a decent amount of other sea life swimming through a kelp forest.  At the end of the ride, the operator apologized and offered us all a full refund because the ride was so "crappy" (he also radioed the base during the ride and told them he wasn't going to bother with any more tours that day).  I refused the refund, but am definitely interested to see what it's like on a good day--supposedly it's even a good place to watch orcas feed (killer whales--they like eating the eagle rays).  Still the first day (first real stop, even) and already making plans to come back "properly"...

Most of the rest of that day was spent driving around, stopping at a few of the more interesting sounding tourist areas.  Very beautiful countryside.  I did stop for a few rambles, including one that went behind a waterfall, but the (sadly limited) pictures work better here than words will.  At the end of this day, you'll notice a picture of my sleeping arrangements for the week--a car seat with a towel as a blanket and a balled up shirt as a pillow.  If it got cold enough, I could just run the car a bit to warm up (and charge my laptop and camera in the process!  Efficiency!).  Later in the week, these arrangements had other advantages--I could ensure I'd be the first person in line for various tours when they opened in the morning (usually getting one of the last spots, as most people actually seem to plan...boring!).  But, again, I'll likely refrain from mentioning this again.

The next day, again, involved a lot of driving.  Luckily, simply driving through this country gives all sorts of amazing views.  Rounding a bend or cresting a hill usually brings an entirely new and quite beautiful view.  And it's rarely far to the next crest or bend.  Even changing the time of day had a large effect--mornings had rivers of mist running through the hills while the afternoon sun burned these away and revealed the forests and rivers cutting through the countryside.  It might seem odd to spend over a full 24-hour day simply driving (during daylight hours, even) in a week long vacation, but the scenery made this a pleasure rather than a chore.  I looked forward to the next trip and would often stop early to ensure I could properly see the views (as long as I didn't have to be waiting at the door to sign up for something early the next morning).

The most stand out feature of this day was Waipoua forest.  The kauri trees in this forest are massive, second only to the giant redwoods of California.  Getting a true sense of scale is hard--I tried to give a little help in one of the photos (10_065.JPG, look for the head of the actually reasonably large man lost in the foliage at the base of the tree), but even this is somewhat deceptive in perspective (the man is about half way between me and the tree, rather than actually at the base).  These trees are also some of the older organisms on the planet--the oldest estimated to be between 1250 and 2500 years old (this is the tree in the photo with the man at the base).

The next day began my adventures in (rather than simple exploration of) New Zealand.  At the end of the previous day, I arrived at the Waitomo Glowworm Caves.  As it happened, this was shortly after they had closed for the night.  Rather than a bad thing, this meant I ran into a nice lady who worked there (likely as the manager) who happily gave some suggestions on what to do.  Top of the list?  The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company (yep, they have Legendary in their name...although it's arguably justified, as they were the first to do it under the glowworms).  This started by abseiling/rappelling 35 m (115 ft) through a small hole in the ground, shortly followed by a zipline through the pitch blackness.  Then?  Grab an inner tube and jump off a small cliff into the frigid cave river (don't worry--wetsuit!).  Slowly traversing the river, you watch the glowworms float past on the ceiling like brilliant blue stars piercing through the utter darkness (headlamps off!).  After ditching the tubes, we scrambled down and climbed up several underground waterfalls back to the surface, with hot soup and showers waiting for all.  All in all, a great way to spend a morning (but not for a camera...).

What, you didn't think that's ALL I'd do in a day, did you?  After confirming with the guides that the rest of Waitomo should probably wait for another journey, I jumped back in the car for the ride to Rotorua.  The standout feature drawing me there from the guide books was the hydrothermal nature of the area.  So I headed there to see the geysers at Te Puia.  Turns out it also happens to be an awesome adventuring zone too, but that description will come later!

So, with a bit of luck I arrived at Te Puia just in time for the last tour combined with the Indigenous Evening Experience (think Māori luau, but more interesting than what I've seen in Hawaii).  The tour showed me around the beautiful geysers and mud pits, and I was even lucky enough to hear the call of the kiwi in their mini zoo (quite cute birds, somewhat bigger than I had expected, but no photos allowed).  It also included a brief introduction to the Māori weaving and carving they specialize in there.  After that was a cultural show (Māori welcome and dancing, including Haka , Titi Torea and Poi ) followed by hangi dinner (various meats and vegetables steam cooked by the geologically heated ground).  And the evening ended with a geyser eruption at night.

Looking through my guide book in the car after the feast, I decided on whitewater rafting for the next day.  Short drive over and it's time to lean the chair back for the night.  As luck would have it the next morning, they had a spot!  As an interesting aside, it seems I was going with the Arrival Magazine "Dream Job" employees (Ben and Dean).  Quite nice people.  But back to the story...I was on a raft going down the highest commercially rafter waterfall in the world (7m = 23 ft, class 5 river).  Then cliff jumping just downstream of a class 6 rapid at the end of the trip.

After that, I asked the rafting guide for suggestions.  This led me first to the Skyline Gondola to take a ride to the top of the nearby hill, overlooking the lake.  At the top, they had a luge course and a sky swing.  Both quite fun, and they amazingly even let me take my camera.  While taking pictures while luging didn't seem like a good idea (kind of like taking pictures while driving a car), doing so while swinging on a really big pendulum turned out reasonably well.  Definitely gives you some idea of how the NZ legal system differs from the US one, though--I don't think anyone in the US would happily and casually strap you into a massive swing, taking special care to send one of the buckles through the camera strap just in case.  Probably why they have such fun options in NZ.

His other suggestion was for something called Ogo.  Take a really large clear sphere and suspend a somewhat smaller clear sphere inside.  Leave a sealable opening for people to enter from.  Fill with (warm in this case, cold in the summer) water, shove people in (1-3), and shove them down a hill with lots of curves.  Slipping, sliding, and tumbling all the way down!  Surprising amount of fun.

As it was nearing the end of the day (most stuff stops in the 4-5 PM range), I figured I'd drive over to Hobbiton...I mean Matamata to have a look (30-45 minute drive).  Figured I'd try to see what made this part of NZ so special that Peter Jackson picked it instead of anywhere else.  Sadly, it's a tour only area and I missed the last tour...so I got back in the car and drove down to Whakapapa, the nearest ski area.  Got there a little after dark and saw a pretty amazing skyscape.  The stars are quite nice up in the mountains there.  Parked in the parking lot (relatively easy to find a decent parking spot for the ski area at night) and got some sleep.

Sadly, I woke up to rain pattering on the windows and fog covering the landscape.  With snow and high winds up top, it seemed I wouldn't be going skiing this trip.  Oh well.  Still got some pictures of the snow!  And I know how to get back for next time!

So I drove back down the mountain and figured I'd pick up a Hobbiton tour instead.  A bit rainy and windy still, but they provided umbrellas and such.  Turns out, my intuition was right and there was nothing special about the scenery at Hobbiton--Peter Jackson simply needed an isolated hilly area with a tree near a lake, but chose this place because it didn't have things like power lines anywhere in sight to worry about and no clear sight lines from any other property nearby.  Fun to see...and more adventurous than you'd expect.

If you've seen the Lord of the Rings movies, do you recall the scene with the hobbits running from the dragon near the start of the first one?  Well, it turns out nature wanted a recreation.  As we were rounding the Party Tree, a massive wind storm swept down on us.  Many umbrellas died this day.  And I barely avoided a 15 cm (6 inch) chunk of wood hitting me in the head because I was intelligent enough to force the umbrella to keep facing the wind rather than letting the wind control it.  With a screaming tour guide and several oblivious tourists, quite an interesting scene to witness.  And supposedly unique in our guide's experience (with 6 years full time).  Luckily no one was hurt.  But even the trees felt the pain.

After this, it was back to Auckland.  First stop: the America's Cup Racing yachts to attempt to get a ride.  Sadly, wind meant there were definitely no tours for two days (until my last day, Monday).  They put my name down for Monday and told me to check back in the morning.  Well, time to drown my sorrows with more hoppy beer.  Mmmm.

The next day I took the ferry over to Rangitoto, a 600 year old volcano in the Auckland harbor.  This is when I realized Auckland is a lot like Vancouver--downtown doesn't have anything truly standout, but it's easy to find tons to do in the surroundings.  Beautiful new growth forest (was mostly barren even 50-100 years ago), with lava flows, lava tubes/caves, and similar to explore.  Even some old military bases.  And a great view of Auckland from the top.  Really makes you wonder why someone chose to build a big city in such a volcanically active area...  But great way to spend the day.

On the way back, I stopped over at Devonport.  This is a town across the harbor from Auckland, with 2 other smaller volcanoes overlooking.  Nice town (with some nice shopping options) along with some great views from the cone tops.  Sadly, the recommended pub here closed at 5 on Sundays so I only made it in for a single drink (cider) before heading back to Auckland for dinner (at one of the pubs with internet, where the last email made it out from).

And then Monday...the last day...  First up?  Check with the America's Cup sailing charter.  While I made it there just before they opened, they still weren't sure what the situation would be--weather reports were borderline.  They asked me to come back in a few hours and recommended a good place for breakfast just nearby.  Nice view, and some company came by to visit (see the picture with breakfast, and the one just before, 10_172.JPG and 10_173.JPG).

With a little more time to kill, I decided to visit the Auckland Sky Tower (the tallest man-made structure in the southern hemisphere).  Fairly nice views, and even got to watch a few people do the Sky Jump.  Sadly, it also convinced me that the Sky Jump is not worth the money ($200, and far too slow/controlled a drop to be really exciting--similar price to skydiving or bungee jumping without nearly the rush).  Still, fun to watch others do it.

Then I returned to the America's Cup booth to hear the bad news--too much wind.  So much for planning!  Luckily, my friend's list still had one pub left well outside town with a few sightseeing stops nearby.  Perfect!  Grabbed lunch at the pub and then drove out to Muriwai Beach.  Beautiful black sand beach with a large bird colony nesting on the cliffs nearby.  Also appears to be a great place for kiteboarding despite high winds (probably 30 knots sustained)--the (small) crowd of surfers couldn't even swim out into the proper surf while the single kiteboarder is ripping back and forth in the shallow coastal surf.  Almost made me feel bad for the surfers...

With still a little time before the rental car had to be returned, I picked another beach off the GPS--Bethells Beach.  This took me through a beautiful drive in the Waitakere Ranges down to a fairly isolated and beautiful beach (probably a lot less empty in the summer).

After all this, it was time to drive back to the airport and the end of my journey.  Definitely not long enough, especially when you consider that half the people I talked to insisted that the south island is even better...  Luckily, New Zealand knew I hadn't had enough and left me with a beautiful sunset outside the airport window.  A fitting farewell from a beautiful country.

If I had to sum New Zealand up in two words, it'd be "Cooler Hawaii", in both senses of the word.  While noticeably chillier than Hawaii, it has a similar Polynesian vibe, comparable (but different) beauty, and the lack of US lawyers allows for significant freedom for adventure touring.  Definitely a place to revisit, with a lot more time.

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