Tree, water and fire

…because I’ve never written a blog post which sounded like it might be the name of a magic system before.

Waking up in a car park (again), the mission for the day was to make it to Taupo.  After an epic number of adventures the preceding day, the plan was to take it a bit easy.  That’s probably a good thing, as given that I can’t really remember the morning, I may have been in some kind of exhaustion-induced coma.

Our first (I assume!) stop on the road was an anonymous-looking car patch (I’d say car park, but it wasn’t really worthy of the name) by the side of the highway.  My curiosity was piqued, so we did a u-y and pulled up, only to find a mysterious-looking path wending its way into the forest.  This was the Pouakani Forest, and we followed the path until we found ourselves at another giant tree.  Result!  Happily, I took a photo of the sign and can therefore tell you that this tree was nearly 2000 years old, 4 metres in girth, and 30-odd metres tall.  Trees are cool.

P1150291-2

The lady at the i-Site in Waitomo had recommended we stopped at Whakamuru Dam, but this turned out to be exactly 0% interesting.  After the dam though, the landscape changed to become really intensely beautiful.  It reminded me a lot of the Alps, and of the sights you see from the train when passing through southern Austria and Switzerland.  I saw a delightful village on an island and insisted that we stop so that I could once again take far too many photos.  It reminded me of a little Swiss hamlet, though I admittedly failed to capture that in my photos.

A bit of an interval later, we covered the last stretch of the drive to Taupo, my terrible directions notwithstanding.  We then proceeded to head straight back out of town until we found ourselves at the incredible Huka Falls.  This is apparently one of New Zealand’s most visited natural attractions, and the sheer volume of the water is amazing: enough to fill two Olympic-sized swimming pools every second.  It was great!

P1150380-7 P1150326-6

Now, I had little idea of what we’d actually do in Taupo, other than perhaps find some more hikes to do.  We popped into the i-Site and checked out all of the brochures, and I asked one of the rangers (or whatever they’re called) which walk she’d suggest.  “I know we can’t do the Tongariri Alpine Crossing,” I said, “due to the snow, but—”

“Actually I’ve just had a phone call,” she interjected.  “It’s open for the first day this season, there’s no snow, you don’t even need a guide!”

‘Whoa’ went my brain.  While I feel rather negatively about all things uphill, this was meant to be one of the best day-walks in NZ, if not the world.  But should we?  We weren’t quite sure, so bought the guide to walks around Taupo and went to have a nap by the lakeshore.

I completely failed at napping, instead plotting and scheming away.  I flagged all of the day-walks which sounded good, handed them to Guma, then suggested that we go and check out the Craters of the Moon.  Did not regret.  I mean, how super freaking cool are volcanoes?  And any evidence thereof pretty much makes my day.  So we went for a wander around the Craters, smelled the sulfur, and pretended we were dinosaurs from the Land Before Time films.  (Okay, so maybe it was just me doing that.)

Throughout this, I’d slowly realised that doing the Tongariri Alpine Crossing the next day was absolutely compulsory, so we booked it back to the i-Site to arrange a shuttle (the walk is one-way).  We were suddenly committed.

Picking up supplies from the supermarket, we next went in search of a shower: there was a ‘super toilet’ or something along those lines by the i-Site, but as I walked in I realised that the showers were already closed for the day.  “Nooooooooooo!” I wailed at the attendant.  “I need a showwwwwwerrrrrrrrr!!!”

“Havyewaka?” she asked.

“I’m sorry?”

“Havyewaka?” she repeated, to my continuing blank expression.  “Haveyewaka?  A ka ka ka?”

“Oh!” I replied, figuring it out.  “Yes, we do have a car!”  Embarrassed by my apparent inability to understand the Kiwi accent, I hurriedly got directions to a gym with showers, and it was time to go.

Post-shower, we decided to head to the southern end of Lake Taupo so that it wouldn’t be too epic of a drive in the morning.  The lake itself was beautiful, and it was a very scenic drive.  Plus, I had this epic pita bread full of mushroom risotto, salad, and feta, and it was absolutely delectable.  Leaving town I saw a young couple silhouetted on the beach, which probably should have been sweet or something, but instead all I could think about was how clammy and goosepimply they have must been after swimming in such cold weather.  Yup, I’m a romantic.

P1150446-6After getting lost and my getting a bit shitty (me minus sleep equals cranky me), we found ourselves an official free camping site.  There we encountered our van-twin: we’d seen the van matching our own in the supermarket car-park earlier.  My observation skills are awesomely bad, and so I’d actually walked up to this stranger’s van to try and drive it away before Guma pointed out that it was not in fact our vehicle.  (One snow season in Jindy I borrowed my friend Karl’s car all season, and I could never recognise it until I walked around to check if it was the 4wd with bullets in the back.  I still have no idea even what colour that car was.)

Anyway I got chatting to the guy from our van-twin and it turned out he was a Kiwi dude, travelling around with a Canadian girl.  I wondered whether it was international romance.  I hoped so!  It’s the most impossible and yet the most beautiful when it works out.  (Okay, so I take it back about the lacking-romanticism!)

The next day would be a very, very early start, so I knew I had to get to bed.  All the same, the stars were so beautiful that I couldn’t resist watching them for a while by the river.  (They didn’t move much :p.)

(Written 29/10/14 and backdated.)

Hobbiting time.

Everybody on the bus was German.  This was pretty much the theme for our New Zealand trip: everywhere we went, most of the tourists were German.  It was kind of weird in that in Australia, tourists are normally from South East Asia, but the only time we encountered any Asian tourists would be the next day.  I guess New Zealand has a somewhat different target market!

P1150461-3
Toward the start of the trail, with the clouds already chasing us up.

Anyway, we were on a very, very early shuttle bus which would take us up to the start of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.  This was the setting for the ‘Mount Doom’ scenes from Lord of the Rings, and about as dramatic and Mordor-like as you could imagine!

Arriving at our destination, the lady on the bus checked we each had some sensible clothing, then we were on our own.  Everybody was kind of milling around, so Guma and I shot off to get ahead of the crowd.  The 19.7km trail is around 6-8 hours long, with the average time being 7 hours, and the weather was quickly closing in.

Walking into the sun, we pretty quickly overtook the people who’d arrived on the earlier bus, and found ourselves walking uphill.  Oh god, that uphill.  So many steps, so much rock—but the scenery was fantastic.  The whole area is part of one of NZ’s volcanic zones, and you could really tell: everything looked dramatic, desolate, dangerous.  You could see old lava flows and craters and it felt sort of post-primordial: like it wasn’t quite the start of the world, but something close enough to it.

P1150470-6
Where we’d come from was already covered!

After the first big climb, we reached a plateau and smashed along it, trying to get up and over the next ridge before the clouds reached us.  They were still close on our heels, and rising quickly.  This is about when the wind came in, ripping across the plateau.  I hid behind a rock and put on some waterproofs to try and keep some of it off me, and then the last climb was this horrible mix of trying to be fast, poor footing, and winds which were throwing us around.  All I could really manage was a slow trudge, and I started to emote with Frodo: no wonder he nearly bloody gave up!

Cloud had been whipping past us, but luckily we reached the top of our climb before the weather got there.  Result!

We paused to take some photos (below), our hands just about freezing, and a couple of others from behind us caught up.  A couple of Germans and a couple of Dutch.  We travelled in a sort-of group down the very unsteady path and across the next band of snow towards a big frozen lake.  I believe this was ‘Emerald Lake’ or some such, one of the key sites on the crossing in summer, but it was frozen, soooo.   White-ish lake?

Next was a descent by the lahar active volcanic zone.  Seriously, how bad-ass is that!?  I took a couple of photos of steam and smoke pouring from the mountain, and everything smelled of sulphur.  No, though, I did not in fact go into the danger zone.  Apparently sometimes I’m not a complete idiot.

The next few hours were all down-hill: we had a brief stop at a hut, but apart from that just kept rolling.  Eventually we left the rocky alpine zones and entered forest.  There was one spectacular area with a stream running through it that was utterly dead: everything was grey, twisted and lifeless.  It was in the direct path of flows down from the volcano, and a strict “no stopping” zone.

Finally we made it to the carpark, a few minutes after our van-twins.  Our final time was a rather swift 5h30, which in turn meant that we were sitting in the carpark for more than two hours.  I didn’t even have a book with me!  It was soooo boring.  I talked to our van-twins, listened to some German girl raving, and eavesdropped on some French girls to see how much I still understand (gisting, yes.  Conversation?  Not so much).  At last, at last the shuttle bus back arrived, we got in the van, farewelled our van-twins, and hit the road.

We decided to stay in Taupo that night before heading off to Rotorua the next day.  We were both pretty keen on a shower and doing some washing, and I was getting pretty tired and grumpy.  Guma said that the day’s hike was the hardest and furthest he’d walked in his life, and it was definitely tough at times!  I’ve also never spent so much time with one person in my life so was craving some personal space.  As such, I hid away in my version of a man-cave: namely, I pitched a tent and went and sat in it with a cider and some chocolate.  It helped a lot, though I was so tired and grumpy that I just wanted to be back home, chilling with my housemate, wrapped up in my blanket and watching kids’ movies.

The weather that night got a little crazy.  Half asleep I MacGyver’d a flip flop into keeping the tent up.  Later as the tent poles gave way I opened my eyes blearily and said “lol” out loud (I was tired enough that “fml” was just too many syllables).  I eventually conceded that maybe putting some ropes would have been a good idea, so staggered around outside half-asleep to do it, then put on pretty much all the clothing to get back to sleep again.  I ended up in two jumpers, thermals, a tshirt, a beanie, the sleeping bag, a blanket, and a scarf-stuffed pillow.  Haha so basically, it was prime tent weather 😉

(Written on 2/11/14 and back-dated.)

 

Kiwi Eruptions

Okay, so just to clarify, New Zealand did not in fact erupt.  We did however see quite a bit of volcanic activity on this seventh day of our Kiwiland road trip.

Our first stop for the day was going to be Wai-o-Tapu, “Thermal Wonderland”, and we were aiming to get there before the daily eruption of Lady Knox Geyser.  It was quite interesting, actually: an employee came out and explained to us that the geyser had been discovered by some convicts in the area.  They were part of a work gang, and one day stumbled across some nice water for washing their clothes.  So they stripped off and started to soap everything up, when suddenly, whoosh—their clothes shot up twenty feet into the air, and the convicts went running off naked into the bush.  Eventually they learned that soap powder set off the eruption, and started to build up and tame the geyser to see how high they could get their clothes.  Here’s a video of it erupting:

Post-eruption, we picked up two hitch-hikers on our way back to the park properly.  They jumped in and said hello.  “German?” I asked, and shockingly, was only 50% right.  Seriously—that’s how many Germans we encountered; they virtually had a monopoly.  Actually I think they may have taken over New Zealand, real quiet and ninja-like.

We spent quite some time wandering through the park, and I’m not going to lie, it was pretty awesome.  The make-up of the area meant that the water was full of chemicals, turning it all kinds of pretty—and bizarre—colours.  On the way out to Rotorua, we also made a quick stop at some mud pools, which had an intensely primordial feeling about them.

Next on the agenda was seeing a goddamn kiwi!  And I’m not talking about New Zealanders here, but rather the bird which is their namesake.  It’s a bit of a bizarre creature, being one of the very few flightless birds, covered with feathers which are almost closer to hair, and inhabiting some weird zone between birds and mammals.  Huh, I guess they’re kind of like chlamydia, or as I prefer to call it, “dino-vagina”.  Chlamydia has been around for such a long time that it doesn’t fit properly into any of our modern-day ways of categorising animals.  It’s amazing that something so old is still so wildly successful as an organism.  Kiwis are less wildly successful, despite their sort-of-mammal, sort-of-bird, just-being-arbitrary kind of status.  They’re pretty tasty, apparently—well, stoats and other introduced predators seem to think so, anyway.  Ooh and another fact: no animals with four legs is native to New Zealand.

Kiwis being nocturnal, and us being decidedly not, we hadn’t seen any on our explorations so far.  Thus it was time to go to “Kiwi Encounter” at Rainbow Springs in Rotorua, where we spent a couple of hours learning about the animals.  We saw some eggs and a baby kiwi, then a couple of adults running around in a darkened enclosure.  They’re pretty funky little things.

We were still pretty wiped out and Rotorua didn’t hold that many temptations, so we headed to Base backpackers.  There’s no free camping in Rotorua, but Base charged something crazy cheap like $8 to park in their campervan carpark, with access to the showers and everything.  My precious kindle finally gave up on life, so I helped myself to the hostel’s book exchange, picking up a novel by the name of “Tomorrow I’ll be Twenty“.  It was diverting and a little bit different, about a boy of ten years old growing up in the Congo.  It had this one really beautiful idea, wherein the protagonist couldn’t promise his paramour grand castles and a luxurious lifestyle like his competition, so instead he said that he would build castles in his heart, where she could live forever and be protected.  It was pretty adorable.

Despite the presence of the hostel bar maybe 15 metres away, we then called it an early night.  I may in fact be boring.  What can I say?

Rainbows, redwoods, and waters hot and cold

Rotorua saw us taking another leisurely late start to the day, as I trotted off at the thoroughly reasonable hour of 8:30 in search of a shower.  Now, while Base let us use their showers, these were not the showers for their regular customers: they were pleb showers.  I’m surprised they didn’t make us use a different entrance to the building.

I gather that most of the hostel dorms had bathrooms in the rooms, with just this one or two on the top floor of the building.  And you know what it means when there’s a shower outside of a room in a hostel?  That means it’s the sex shower.  Yup, I cleaned myself in the sex shower.  (For those of us who haven’t spent almost absurd amounts of time in hostels, it’s generally considered bad form to take part in any naked shenanigans in your dorm room.  Unless everybody else is invited, of course.  So you have the sex shower.  Living the dream, right?)

After studiously not thinking about the walls and floor of the bathroom, it was time to head off.  Well, nearly—I hadn’t been in any thermal pools of any description yet, and our guide-lady at Kiwi Encounter the day before had suggested we go for a wander in a particular park.  She told that there were pools there and assured us that the water was refreshed every day, so we had no need to worry about kids peeing in it.  Yayyy detail.  Happily, this park was over the street from the hostel, so wander we did.

P1150758-2

In the photo you can see that (a) I don’t understand weather, and (b) I’m holding a super-delicious blackcurrant hot chocolate.  That plus “go-nuts” were breakfast, which we bought from a market stall.  More excitingly however, we saw a book sale and I picked up some reading material!  Crisis averted!  Haha I can’t even remember the last time I’d bought a real book that wasn’t a textbook, in Russian, or a specific translation of a classic.  I’m reliant on my Kindle… well, was reliant on my Kindle.  RIP my friend!

Finally it was time to get properly moving.  Our first stop was Rainbow Mountain (which I mentally renamed “Candy Mountain”, causing me to quote lines from the video to Guma, who had no idea what was going on).  We did the quick Crater Lakes walk, then it was off again.  Next stop was “The Redwoods”, a gigantic plantation of California redwoods (Whakarewarewa Forest).  They were all so grand and beautiful!  We went for a pretty amazing walk through them for about an hour, and honestly, it was hard to believe we were in the Southern Hemisphere.  Hmm.  Not sure on the capitalisation there.  I’m le tired.

Next stop was supposed to be a walk on the shores of Lake Tarewera, but we went thoroughly the wrong way.  It was a rather lovely wrong way though, and we stopped at Blue and Emerald Lakes (which, due to the weather, didn’t look even slightly blue nor emerald).  We didn’t spend long there though, as we still had a long way to go: our destination for the day was Coromandel Peninsula, so that we could do the Pinnacles walk the next day.

Getting close to Coromandel, the windy roads which I was starting to associate so closely with New Zealand made a reappearance.  After a few solid hour of driving, we stopped at a place called T-something (I, uh, may have mis-spelled that…), but it was horrendously cold and windy so we got pretty much straight back in the van again to find an adventure.  We soon found ourselves further north and on a walk to Cathedral Cove.

Cathedral Cove is apparently quite a big deal, but I quietly think it may have been somewhat arbitrarily added to the “list of things for tourists to do” in New Zealand.  At least, it seemed to cater to tourists, and there were rather a lot of people there.  It was around half an hour’s walk each way, and when we got back to the car I remember glancing at Guma and was so surprised at his appearance I just about squeaked.  “Guma, your face is a river!” I exclaimed, and I swear, it was.  “Yeah, well when you walk like that,” he observed.  “You can tell you live in the city.”  To be fair, he was still wearing trousers and a jacket, whereas I’d spent the day in a singlet and shorts.  In fact, that was pretty much our standard driving gear: him in full winter clothes and a beanie, and me wearing summer.  We have very, very different ideas about what an acceptable temperature is, so while he wanted the air con in the van at 31 degrees, I preferred 18.  We compromised on around 22 and dressed to suit.  Genetics, I guess?  His ancestors are from the equatorial regions, whereas mine are (to my knowledge) from wayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy further north.

Our next stop before going back to T-something was ‘Hot Water Beach’, another one of the tourist ‘must-dos’.  It was kind of a bust, though: while you can carve yourself out a little bath at low tide which will fill with thermally-heated water, it was horrible weather and not especially low tide.  I stuck my toe in and nope’d right on out again.

Back at T-something, we couldn’t find the free camping that was meant to be there somewhere, so drove into some guy’s yard.  To be fair, he had a sign up saying that was okay.  I went and rang the doorbell to pay, and he was the hippiest surfer dude going.  Oh!  And Guma cooked dinner that night!  Poor boy—I gave him some risotto to sort out, and it was all a bit much for him.  We got there eventually though, then settled down for our second-last night of the trip.

(Written 12/11/14 and back-dated.)

The Pinnacle

Our final hike for the trip would be going up the Pinnacles in Coromandel, and I was not excited.  On each of the preceding hikes I’d gotten myself through the uphill sections by telling myself that (a) I would have the world’s greatest ass, and (b) at least it wasn’t as uphill as the Pinnacles.  Yup.  I am uphill-averse.

The Pinnacles hike is a fairly constant uphill return (ie you go up the path and then you go down the path) . It’s 15-16km, and we had a pretty great day for it: not too hot and not too muggy.  It also seems as it’s not on the tourist radar, as we only met a handful of people on the track, and most of them Kiwi.  There was one family with a particularly British look to them, and the dad greeted us with a resounding “buenos dias!”  “Indeed,” I replied.  “Oh, don’t mind me,” he said.  “I’m just practising my Spanish.”  “Muy bien!” I answered as we went past, suffering from typical adverb/adjective confusion.  “Oh, good on you!!” he called back, delightedly.

Once you reach the plateau up the top and before the final ascent, there’s a very fancy hut which was guarded by a big black labrador.  So it was time for a puppy break and a vegemite sandwich before the final haul.  There were approximately a zillion stairs, but we got there in the end.

On the way back down from the hut, we were confronted by a guy who was running up the mountain.  Don’t you kind of hate those people?  Who runs up a mountain!?!  Eugh.  He didn’t drop the pace, either: he passed us on his way out of the park just before we reached the end of the trail.  How rude!

We stopped in at the ranger’s hut on our exit to let her know that we were down and safe, as most people do this hike as an overnighter rather than a day-trip.  “What, are you back?  Didn’t you go to the top?” she asked.  I replied that yup, we had, we were just swift.  “Gosh, you guys must be fit!” she exclaimed.  I laughed at the idea.  “I’m not fit, though he might be.  I’m just stubborn.  And really, really competitive.”  (It took us 5:10.)

Heading back to the van, it was time to return to reality, though we took a beautiful road to get there.  Our destination for the night was Manukao, an outer suburb of Auckland, where we would have hot showers and sleep.  Also food, weirdly (and hilariously) enough at the Lone Star.  I forgot they existed—one opened in my hometown when I was around 12, but someone died falling on a peanut or something.  I don’t think it went too well after that!

The next morning dawned pretty damn horribly to be honest.  The weather was windy as hell (which you’d assume would be quite windy, what with the heat and up-drafts and things), and it was freezing cold.  We went for a drive to and then through Auckland, checking out some of the pretty coastline, but not keen to actually get out of the car.  I later went looking  for a toy donkey for my housemate, as I’ve somehow gained the habit of buying her donkeys from the places I go to.  No luck though.  We also picked up some superglue, so that we could fix part of the van which I’d casually and completely unintentionally ripped off!

We spent our last bit of time at the Botanical Gardens.  Now, as those who’ve been reading this blog a while know, I really enjoy going to botanical gardens around the world and taking photos of the flowers.  Not really sure how macho body-builder Guma felt about it, however!  I’d take a photo, get all excited and show him, and he’d give an obedient nod and make some kind of affirmative sound.  Hahaha.

Finally it was time for the airport, and so we returned the van, our not-insignificant 2539km on to the clock.  Once at the airport, Guma and I split up, as we were travelling with different airlines (I found him at his gate a couple of minutes before he was due to fly out though, in order to say bye).  Now, I’ve spent quite a bit of time in New Zealand airports, and the couple of hours I had to kill at Auckland airport made me reflect a bit on that.

A few years ago—technically, more than ‘a few’ at this point—I found myself dating a ski instructor.  You’d think I’d learn, really, but nuh-uh.  Anyway, after a delayed, redelayed, and delayed-some-more start date, it was time for him to bid adios to Australia for the season and head off to NZ for ten weeks.  It was fine though, as i’d be over a couple of times in that period.  Haha and if the ‘ski instructor’ wasn’t a clue, things did not go well.  The opposite of well, actually, and I found myself in NZ, heart-broken, and completely alone.  So I emailed JFord, who has appeared in this blog before (Mungo road trip; our vlogs in Russia 1 2 3), and said “just get me the fuck out of this country”.  Now Jess is also my attorney, emergency contact etc, and so while she was doing magic with my frequent flyer programs and credit cards, I spent the day snowboarding.  (Awesomely.)  Anyway, long story short, not only did Jess get me out of the country for under $200, she got me out in under 24 hours (with 14 of those in an array of Kiwi airports).  She also treks up to Sydney all the time to meet my outrageous demands for adventures, she came to visit in Russia, and most recently helped out with my Belgian visa.  You see, I had to have a financial guarantor, and I’m single and have no family other than my Nan.  So I asked Jess if she’d mind, and she spent the next few days frantically running around, calling the embassy, getting statutory declarations drawn up, seeing Justices of the Peace, gathering together paperwork, and finally sending it off.  The end result was that I got my visa and I am in fact now set for Europe in around six weeks.  But what I guess is what I’m trying to say is that I couldn’t sort out the insanity that is my life without her on my team, and that everybody needs a JFord in their lives.

-Massive segue over.-

To finally wrap up this post, here’s an interactive map of the journey Guma and I took through North Island.  The blue numbers are where we spent each night, and the green numbers show the bigger walks we went on.

(Written 13/11/14 and back-dated.)