Tues 25th May
It was with relief that I left the congestion of auckland behind on Wednesday, jumped on the big green Kiwi Experience bus and headed out into the wop wops. Within just a few hours it was easy to see how the guidebooks describe NZ as having a "new photo opportunity around every corner". The landscape is so varied that it is literally every ten minutes that rolling green hills become steep, forested volcanoes, become rocky coastline, becomes sandy bays and each as picture-perfect as that preceeding. Thick fog and drifting clouds made the jutting ridges of the dark mountains all the more impressive and we crossed wide, glassy rivers on narrow rickety wooden bridges.
I was a little apprehensive that the kiwi passengers would be predominately 18-year old pissheads but we are a varied group of all ages, good fun but definitely not just here to get pissed. The bus driver was a little harder to accept, with his refusal to answer any of our questions about the plans for later that day and the next, saying only "sit back, relax and go with the flow". This is not a relaxing thing for me to have to do!! Being able to relax for me involves my knowing exactly where, when, how and what is going to happen in the next 24hours. (Incidentally, this has become a bit easier as the days have progressed, perhaps I really AM getting into the laid-back kiwi way of life and going with the flow? I don't need to know what we're doing each day in quite so much detail as I thought I did on the first day).
The afternoon of that first day we took a walk down to Cathedral Cove; it was a 30minute walk with rocks and steps and hills and hummocks with sandy beach at the end, all of which I managed just fine, if a little slow, in my moonboot. I got a lot of pitying and admiring looks from people we passed on the path or perhaps they were thinking "I'm SURE you shouldn't be doing this walk in that boot-thing", maybe they had a point? But I want to miss out on as little as possible due to my foot. Some people swam in the sea, claiming it was plenty warm at the time but later admitting that it HAD been (as I'd suspected all along) brass monkeys.. 15C sounds warm but really, just... no. We spent the evening in a lovely homely hostel in Whitianga (The -wh- in Maori is pronounced as an F.. they only have 14letters in their alphabet), where I sampled kiwi cider 'Isaacs', which was actually pretty good.
Day two was the best so far, it was awesome!! We had a walk in the Karangahake Gorge, the site of some old gold-mining operations, where we walked along the abandoned narrow-guage railway tracks through caves and tunnels and across bouncy wooden suspension bridges across the gorge. As always, NZ is impressive, it does not disappoint. Our destination for this day was Rotorua, the geothermal capital of NZ and the third most geothermally active place in the world (after Iceland and Yellowstone national park).
I think in my last entry I was not quite accurate in my explanation of the state of the plates beneath NZ.. apparently the plates are actually quite far apart, not touching, which is why the aboveground consquence of this boundry is geothermal activity, steam jets and so forth. If they were close together, NZ would be an earthquake zone and much less liveable.
We were warned in advance of the eggy smell of Rotorua and it was certainly noticeable in the air, but I did not think it unpleasant. Many times my brain told me "someone is cooking omelette somewhere" before I corrected myself. I visited Te Puia geothermal park and was rendered speechless by the sight of the geothermal field, with Boiling mud pools (think bubbling and burping), pools that looked pretty normal apart from the ripples of the surface, where the water was gently simmering, steam issuing from cracks in the rock all around and a pair of geysers which erupted, shooting boiling water up to 30m in the air. The rocks to either side of the path were hot to touch. I have never seen anything like it. It was just fantastic. Te Puia is also the NZ centre for Maori arts and crafts; we were lucky enough to be able to watch male wood-carvers and female flax-weavers at work and to have some of the significance behind the various features of the wood carving explained by our Maori guide. Also there was a Marae or Maori complex of buildings, with a meeting house or wharenui with impressive carvings and decoration.
I had an equally fantastic experience that evening when, along with some girls from the kiwi bus, I visited the Polynesian Spa, a complex housing six geothermally heated mineral spring water pools, three acidic (good for the skin) and three alkaline (for the muscles). The pools were naturally at temperatures ranging from 37 to 41C, steam rising from their surfaces into the chilly night air, raindrops falling into the pools and onto our sholdours. The fact that the pools were open-air was genius, making the contast between the chill and the heat just blissful, as we laid back and relaxed, overlooking the wonderful view out over lake Rotorua to the twinkling lights of the township. Being natural pools, they varied in their colour and consistency. The first acidic pool we dipped in was distinctly yellowed in colour, with a faint odour of sulphur and it tasted a bit eggy when we put our tongues in it! I wasn't sure at first whether I wanted to put my face and hair under, but saw most other people there entirely submerging themselves and followed suit; if it's good for my skin I'm sure it can't be bad for my hair, right?! Another acidic pool was chalky white and opaque, a couple of the alkaline ones had bits of stuff floating in them. The 42C pool could only be born for a few minutes before cooling in the air.
All around the town of Rotorua could be seen jets of steam spouting from the ground, beside the road, in people's gardens, further away in the hills. It was pretty unique.
Friday was cave day! We came to Waitomo, just a couple hours drive from Rotorua, a welcome change from the old oz experience and 8hours of driving per day. I took a tour of the glowworm caves, impressive caverns with all the usual cavey features, then the star of the show, the glowworms! Our Maori guide explained how the worms are the pupae of the fungus fly, they attach to the celings of caves and hang down a number of sticky, silvery threads. The then glow via bioluminenscence to lure insects in, which become entangled in their sticky threads and are wound up to become a meal for the larvae. With strategically placed lights we could see these hundreds of thousands of threads all haging down. We were taken on a boat trip, in the pitch dark, on a lake in a high-celinged underground cavern, an experience in itself, then the glows, thousands upon millions of spots of blue light on the celings and walls, like the stars in the night sky. Galaxies and constellations could be seen in them, a set of three arranged like orion's belt, a human face, a swirly pattern. Silence apart from the faint slopping of water against the walls from the ripples of our boat, it was just awesome. I will say this once more, then never again, it must just be taken as given that to most things I am experiencing out here, I have never seen anything like it.
We spent two nights and one full day at Lake Taupo, the lake of a caldera volcano, Taupo is classed as a so-called "super volcano", one of the biggest eruptions ever to have occured on earth. It is massive and when considering the scale of the massiveness, just think that Taupo is so large that the whole of singapore could fit into the middle of it with room to sail around the outiside. The main function of stopping here for two nights was a chance for most of the group to do the day-long Tongariro Crossing walk, which was rated by National Geographic as the "best one-day walk in the world". I was quite upset and disappointed to have been unable to do it as I love hiking and to have to forfeit a chance to do such a highly rated walk was a real shame. I didn't have a bad day though, I went to walk alonside Lake Taupo for a few hours. It was a bit cloudy and foggy and couldn't see the volcanoes in the distance at all, but it was still a nice walk. It was the coldest I've been so far! I had on about three tops, a hoody, hat, scarf, gloves and my nose was red and chilly, it was novel and I quite enjoyed the sensation!
River Valley was the final stop before Wellington, where we stayed in a wonderful and homely lodge with the smell of homecooked dinner throughout. It was rainy outside, we took a walk up the mountain opposite (the lodge is nestled at the base of a steep-sided valley, next to a river where they go rafting) to have a great view back down the valley. It was very hardgoing in the moonboot, alternating slippery bare steep mud with loose rocks and steps and undergrowth, my boot was soaking and muddy by the end! But I was determined and I managed it and the view was definitely worth it. Upon returning to the lodge we chillaxed in the hot tub (outdoors, in the rain!) and sauna before a sociable evening in the wooden panelled communal area of the lodge, in front of a roaring open fire. Lovely.
And so today, we rolled into Wellington, at the southernmost tip of the North Island. I have just three nights and two days here before crossing over to the South Island on Friday to continue my travels down the west coast of the south next week.