Tongariro

The highlight of the North Island is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing – a 17-19km (depending on who you ask) trek across the volcanic Mount Tongariro (and optionally Mount Ngauruhoe for the experienced masochist).

A group of us from the Kiwi tour undertook the crossing. We were picked up from our hostel in Taupo at 5:30 am and driven to the starting point by an outfit called Tongariro Expedition. The weather was perfect, and the views from around Tongariro’s various craters and lakes were amazing. We were warned that the Devil’s Staircase would test us, and it did. This climb, which starts after an hour or so of fairly gentle walking, takes you up about 300m to South Crater. South Crater itself looks like a Martian landscape – orange, almost completely flat and devoid of vegetation except for some grass-like tufts. An optional climb up to the summit of Ngauruhoe supposedly takes about 3 hours from the top of Devil’s Staircase, but Ngauruhoe is an intimidating sight even at this height, and we had no time left to do it even if we’d wanted to.

The climb up to the ridge of Red Crater is more difficult and dangerous than the staircase. We didn’t have to contend with strong winds, fortunately. However, melting ice had turned parts of the path to slippery mud, and this was a little unnerving given the steep drops on both sides and the lack of obvious hand holds. The other parts of this ascent consisted of loose rocks, in contrast to the well formed steps encountered previously.

There was certainly a sense of achievement upon reaching Red Crater, though most of us chickened out on going to the actual summit of Tongariro. Red Crater is much smaller than the other craters, but higher up and still active. Rocks on the ridge’s highest point were hot to the touch. The subsequent descent to the Emerald Lakes was quite easy, because it involves more-or-less sliding down volcanic sand, but this results in your shoes becoming full of the stuff (which can be surprisingly sticky). The Emerald Lakes are the recommended lunch stop, though the sulphur smell doesn’t do much for the appetite.

From here we descended into and trekked across Central Crater, which featured a large lava flow and snow-covered inner slopes. From the subsequent ridge you can see Blue Lake. We walked through a couple of snow drifts along the way. The way down is an agonisingly long trek descending from Tongariro’s northern slopes. For the last hour or so you pass through thick vegetation, and this would make a great walk in itself if it weren’t for the aches and blisters acquired over the previous six hours. By the time we reached the end – a little over 7 hours after we started – we were all utterly worn out and sore, but universally glad that we’d done it.

The next day the weather closed in and Tongariro disappeared beneath clouds and rain.

Waitomo

Waitomo is a tiny village in the west whose principal attraction is black water rafting, and it’s a good one. Before we were hurled down into the dark abyss, however, we were treated to the spectacle of rabbit shearing. The rabbits were presumably bred to obtain high quality fibres. Unfortunately for them, their fur traps so much heat that without shearing they would die. So, every three months or so (when they resemble a large, quivering pompom) they are literally tied down, stretched out on something that resembles a torture device, and shorn.

Black water rafting, meanwhile, has nothing whatsoever to do with rabbits. For the uninitiated, it involves rafting through caves on an underground river. It’s not an adrenaline rush in the manner of white water rafting, but it is a great experience. You get a wetsuit, a helmet with a torch and a rubber tube on which to float, and some basic initiation. Two guides lead you through a cave system, sometimes on foot and sometimes floating on your tube. The main aesthetic attraction are the glow worms, which show up in places as bluish, starlike pin-pricks of light against the cave ceiling. We weren’t confronted with any of the larger cave inhabitants (which apparently include spiders, wetas and eels), with the exception of one dead eel.

The guides take plenty of photos while underground, and also beforehand while you make ridiculous poses in your wet suits and rubber tubes. They show these to you afterwards on a large TV and offer to sell them to you on a CD. I thought I could cheat the system by taking my own photos of the TV screen, but was quickly rebuffed. The photos I do have are predominantly of the previous day, when we were taken on a walk around the forest above the cave system.

Once our caving adventures had finished, my replacement sunglasses from Rotorua promptly fell apart.

Rotorua

En route from Whitianga to Rotorua we stopped over for a walk around an old gold mining railway track. This involved gingerly making our way through dark tunnels with only my dingy torch between about ten people. Some of our number took a wrong turn before the tunnels and almost missed the bus.

Rotorua is a sizeable town, and offers all manner of strange and diverse tourist activities. However, the two that you really have to do (and the only ones I actually did) are Te Puia and the Tamaki Maori village.

Our Kiwi Experience driver guide (who calls himself Guido Popadopolis aka Trevor) gave several of us about 45 minutes at Te Puia to see the geysers and mud pools. This was unfortunate, because the actual tour lasts 90 minutes and also includes an exhibition of Maori arts and crafts. After ten minutes having the cultural significance of the entrance explained to us, we snuck off and made a bee line for the geysers. The main geyser was “on” more or less constantly, as best we could tell, and the intoxicating aroma of sulphur abounded. Between the geyser and the bad weather, we found ourselves fairly damp on our scramble back to the bus. However, we stopped by the Kiwi enclosure for a quick glimpse of New Zealand’s iconic ground-dwelling pillow.

We were not short-changed on the Maori cultural side of things with the Tamaki village. The experience begins as soon as you step onto the bus, which the driver encourages you to think of as a canoe, and where the chief of your tribe is selected from among the more extroverted males. By the time we arrived at Tamaki itself, a little way outside of Rotorua, we had already learnt several Maori words and had been introduced to the premise of the story that was to be played out as we visited. The evening proceeded with a Maori challenge to our newly-appointed chiefs (and by extension to us), a quick tour of the village itself, nestled inside a forest, a dramatic exhibition of singing and dancing, and an enormous buffet meal (a Hangi) prepared in traditional fashion, though utilising some more modern elements. The bus trip back continued the singing, with each country represented on the bus asked to contribute. I was ready to pitch in with Waltzing Matilda, and I probably should have, but continuing the pattern of festive stupidity I went for the first couple of verses from 100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall (which probably isn’t even Australian). Our friendly Maori driver later engaged us in a rousing chorus of She’ll be Coming ‘Round the Mountain while circling a round-about for about two minutes in a highly-illegal manner. A second bus from the village joined in on the same round-about, probably much to the confusion and annoyance of other road users.

We were staying at the local Base hostel (the McDonalds of backpackers hostels), which was reasonable but nothing special. I managed to get a decent iced chocolate at a nice cafe along the main shopping street in town, and replaced my lost sunglasses.

Mercury Bay

The first “real” day of the Kiwi Experience tour took us east to Mercury Bay, for sea kayaking and to experience the springs at Hot Water Beach. The latter are unfortunately only available at low tide, and so were skipped.

Sea kayaking is a lot of fun, and the location was idyllic. Those on the bus who had chosen to do it were given a crash course on the beach before heading out to sea. It was two to a kayak, with the person in the rear steering. The instructor helpfully suggested that this arrangement was a “friendship breaker”. Paddling was quite intuitive, but the two methods of steering (paddling on one side and adjusting the rudder) involve opposite sides. For instance, to steer to the left you can push your left foot and/or paddle on the right. Doing both requires a little concentration. Thus, in the midst of slightly anxious murmurs from the person in front that we were heading too close to the rocks, I proceeded to steer right towards them.

Nevertheless, we successfully beached at an even more idyllic location by the name of Cathedral Cove. There it emerged that our guides had taken with them in their kayaks all the equipment needed to make coffee, hot chocolate and/or tea for all fourteen or so of us. We ran around the beach taking photos while they prepared our orders.

The return trip was a little more dramatic. Our kayak capsized (due possibly to some festive stupidity) and we were dumped unceremoniously into the cold Pacific. My fellow kayaker was not at all pleased about this, from the expression on her face. One of the guides scrambled to help us back into the kayak, which he did with admirable efficiency. We were flipped over again when coming into shore, and I lost my aging sunglasses. My camera, which had been aboard, survived unscathed.

We bedded down for the night in the small town of Whitianga, at a very nice apparently family-run hostel, in which you get dinner, breakfast and the momentary attention of at least three felines that idly stalk the property.

Bay of Islands (Paihia and Russell)

How not to do it.

Getting onto the Kiwi Experience bus was straightforward, and our driver guide had the right sort of mix of humour and information that makes the trip interesting. All the organisation (apart from the initial booking) is done en route, via clipboards that are passed around the bus. The driver guide runs through the different activities available at the destination, and the accommodation options, and we sign up. It’s all optional, but it does make life somewhat easier.

The trouble started with the Kiwi Experience website’s idea of the minimum trip time for the Bay of Islands – 1 day. This is technically true, and I thought at the time, not knowing anything about it, that it would be sufficient. It wasn’t even close. Paihia is not a day trip – it’s where day trips go from. Going by the bus timetable online, the bus was scheduled to depart the area at about 5pm. The actual departure time turned out to be 3pm, we having arrived at noon, and this instantly eliminated just about all the possible adventure activities.

The driver guide tried to talk me into spending a night in Paihia, and this would have been a wise move had I not already booked a dorm in Auckland (which currently contained my laptop, chained to the bed and simultaneously locked inside my suitcase). Failing that, he suggested that a walk around Russell and a visit to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds would be about the only options given my small window of time.

Even that ended up being too optimistic. I caught the ferry to Russell without drama, and it was pleasant enough, but time was too short to explore much of the town itself. The ferry ride back was a much faster one, which was also pleasant enough. However, this all should have come after I visited the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, as I discovered once I’d made the half-hour walk to Waitangi. There are regular miscellaneous events throughout the day showcasing Maori culture and thus providing background on the Treaty between the Maori and the European settlers. Unfortunately, the only event I had time to see had already started, and the only one I was in time to see would have taken too long. Minus several million points for good planning. I consoled myself as best I could in a cafe next door to the visitor information centre.

After all, it wasn’t as though I’d actually paid for the bus to Paihia – it had been a freebie thrown in with the “Sheep Dog” tour.

At the time of writing I’m in Rotorua, and I’ll post something about this and the trip to Mercury Bay shortly.

Auckland

I experienced Auckland over the course of three mornings, three evenings and miscellanous parts of the daytime. Nobody actually seems to like it terribly much. My impression is that the city is considered a necessary evil.

The CBD is generally adequately endowed with eateries. On my first night, Hong Yul introduced me to a collection of restaurants on the Viaduct waterfront, and the pizza and pasta we ordered there were great. Outside of this, the closest I managed to come to the classic late-evening yuppy alfresco cafe experience (Starbucks doesn’t count) was one of two small kiosks on Queens Street, which literally occupies all of about 3 square metres, though admittedly their fudge slice was pretty good. Perhaps I wasn’t looking hard enough.

There are a large number of small convenience stores, which don’t quite cut it for shopping expeditions. I stumbled across The Barrow by accident, but it turned out to have a very nice selection of fairly good quality stuff (e.g. ingredients for a decent sandwich).

Going up the Sky Tower is probably worthwhile, and the view is not to be dismissed (nor the experience of standing on a glass panel looking down at the yawning expanse of thin air beneath), but it’s not radically different from being high up on any other tall structure. After five minutes of panoramic photography the entertainment is essentially exhausted. Possibly if there was a guide pro-actively pointing out and explaining sites of interest visible from the observation deck the experience would have been more fulfilling.

Owing to the geography of Auckland, its roads have a distinctly three-dimensional quality (unlike, say, Adelaide and parts of Perth, which are firmly in the 2D camp). The third dimension adds character in places and reminded me of Melbourne a little, but this privilege has possibly been abused in the enormous spaghetti junction where the motorways converge on the CBD. The hills also make it challenging for anyone (e.g. me) who likes to do a bit of exploration on foot. However, exploring Auckland on foot does have at least one thing to commend it: the traffic is absolutely terrible. Oh you may joke about being stuck in a car park while negotiating Perth’s freeways at rush hour. In Auckland it doesn’t apparently matter when it is or where you are; at any moment fifty cars can suddenly ambush you or your bus from every direction, and *poof* you have gridlock.

I’m leaving Auckland behind tomorrow for Mercury Bay, but at some point I’ll have to post an update on my somewhat less-than-successful trip to the Bay of Islands.

Rangitoto

Dave has arrived in Auckland. Actually I arrived yesterday, but I didn’t bother taking any photos. I did meet up for dinner with Hong Yul, who I’d met at two ASWEC conferences, and we discussed life, the universe and everything.

So today, having successfully negotiated a booking with Kiwi Experience for tomorrow (you buy the ticket but you also have to tell them separately what day you’re going to use it), I departed on an unrelated day trip to Rangitoto, a volcanic island 260m high. I packed a box of strawberries acquired from The Barrow a few minutes before to keep me going, because there’s no food or water available on the island itself. This was more than sufficient, given a reasonable breakfast. It turns out that enormous milkshakes, boat trips and unpredictable weather are not the best combination for one’s well-being, but I turned out alright.

The information board at the base of Rangitoto says the climb takes an hour, which is a fairly generous estimate. I climbed it in 45 minutes, and I assume people who actually know about this sort of thing would be faster still. Coming back down was not actually much easier than going up, because much of the track is loose volcanic gravel and very akwardly-shaped rocks. The lower slopes of Rangitoto are a strange mixture of dense scrub and totally barren volcanic rock. As you approach the crater there’s a transition point where the vegetation becomes more rainforesty and the track becomes smoother and a little steeper. There are fewer large rocks laying around at the top. Perhaps the culprit is decades of tourist erosion, whereby visitors take to hurling rocks off the summit, either just because they can or because that’s the sort of thing they feel should generally be happening at the top of a volcano.

The lava caves are also worth a visit, and there’s plenty of time before the ferry comes back to do it. However, bring a torch.

Also, a note on the ferry: it’s a much more interesting trip if you stand on the top-most (unenclosed) deck, because in order to do this you have to stand at 30 degrees to perpendicular.