Heading North

Dubbed as the Adventure Capital of the World, Queenstown is a mecca for mountain biking, rock climbing, skiing, parasailing, skydiving, and water sports. As much as I would love to retail you with stories of jumping off of stuff and careening down things, I did very little (read: none) of that during our couple of days in Queenstown. What we did, mostly, was enjoy being in town and catching up with some of Tim’s old friends. We spent a couple of days drinking our way around town and enjoying the bustling, light-hearted atmosphere of the place. Queenstown itself is beautiful; surrounded by hills, perched on a gorgeous lake, it is certainly your picturesque New Zealand town. This is somewhere a person could happily spend a few months out of the year.

Queenstown

It was then time to begin our long journey north. We left in the afternoon, after Tim squeezed in a quick mountain biking trip, and headed towards Castle HIll. Castle Hill is an area dotted with very unique rock formations, and has become a popular spot for climbers and boulderers. We pitched out tent for a night in the nearby campground (for a whopping $12/night) and managed to get a solid half-day of climbing in amongst the boulders. We had a long drive ahead of us back to Picton that evening, where we were to catch the 2 a.m. ferry back to the North Island. Upon arrival in Wellington somewhere in the neighbourhood of 6 a.m., we didn’t waste any time before commencing the 8 hour (ish) drive back up to Auckland. The hurry was purposeful, though, as we got back to Tim’s family’s place at a reasonable hour in the afternoon of Christmas Eve. We had an amazing Christmas – my second in a row in this half of the world – and I was completely spoiled and  felt right at home with stockings, a turkey, and thoughtful gifts. Though missing all of the crew back in Canada, I certainly couldn’t have asked for a better time in New Zealand.

And there we have it! (I’m finally almost caught up!) We had a couple of days to pack, and pack again, and shove all of Tim’s remaining stuff into closets in the garage, and we were all of a sudden off to Mexico in a very short amount of time!

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Tongariro

It’s probably the best day walk in the country, and could quite likely lay a broader blanket of fame than that as well. Australia and the Pacific perhaps? I, of course, have not completed every day walk in New Zealand, and certainly not in the continent, but I’d wager some good bets that it’s up there.

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing spans the length of Mount Tongariro and is located in the Central North Island. Through a combination of Tim’s foggy memory, faulty research, and sugar-coating, I discovered that the 10 km walk that I expecting was actually 19.4 (And don’t forget the words “alpine crossing” in the title here. That means hills). Nevertheless, the distance is still easily traversed in a day, and the amazing scenery more than makes up for trudging slowly up the aptly named Devil’s Staircase. Every hike worth its salt surely has one of these – the steepest area of the track where they may have fashioned something resembling a crumbling staircase in an attempt to camouflage the aggressive slope you will soon be puffing up. Perhaps one of the best things about this hike is that you get all of the hard stuff out of the way at the beginning, reach a beautiful peak with beautiful views, and then spend the next three hours trotting downhill quite happily, slaloming down scree with hiking poles, past old women with hiking poles, which makes you feel a bit better about being 20-something and using hiking poles. The pristine and brilliant colours of the emerald and blue lakes, the steaming volcanoes, and the rocky, red earth of the track make for a day of extraordinary views, contrasts, and the constant and very real reminder that you are in an active volcanic zone. Fenced off explosion holes next to the path (and still a reasonable distance from the mouth of any volcano) the size of small cars and signs ready to change at a moments notice to advise visitors that the track is closed kept it in the forefront of our minds that the area is still extremely active volcanically. The steam alone was enough to make Tim a bit nervous, as he had spent a fair amount of time in the area and had never seen it so active. Clearly, though, all was well, and the start of our solo trip south began on quite an excellent foot.

Tongariro

Tongariro Lakes

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Parking Lots

There’s definitely a cliché for this. Probably many. Still, I wasn’t prepared for the emotional goodbye with the best of our friends from the past few months in Sydney. And the several hours – days, rather – that followed with a strange, empty feeling somewhere in my gut. The goodbyes took place in a parking lot behind the information centre in Thames, New Zealand. Someone, at some point, voiced the thought that this was entirely the wrong setting for something like this, but I disagree. In the otherwise deserted lot, our individual cars ready to take us to our respective destinations, it seemed the perfect place to go our separate ways. It reminded me, in some ways, of another life-changing goodbye, one that took place on a moving metro train in Athens.

There were tears, more than I expected, from others and myself. With a couple of exceptions, everyone who I really cared about from my life in Sydney was assembled in this parking lot, parting at the end of one of the best weekends you could imagine. A weekend at a friend’s cottage on the beach had been followed by potentially The Best Monday of All Time – a full day canyoning trip through Sleeping Gods Canyon near Thames. This epic day was full of abseiling, waterfalls, cliff jumping, and general awesomeness. It was at the end of all of this that finally, we said goodbye.

Canyon Crew OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe rest of the crew split up, a couple were spending another couple of nights on the beach, a couple more hanging around Auckland for job interviews and tattoos, and a couple of others were heading back to Sydney in the morning. They’ll all be back in Sydney now, and I have no doubt the schemes for drinks and parties and missions are well under way. Sydney certainly wouldn’t have been the same without our crew, and the amazing times we’ve had are pretty much unforgettable. I’m lucky enough to have forged friendships with some amazing people, people who I have no doubt I’ll meet up with again, perhaps in Cusco, perhaps in Vancouver. Already can’t wait for the next adventure!

Tim and I drove towards the centre of the North Island, and prepared for the beginning of our solo adventure through New Zealand for the next few weeks.

Car

Steam and Caves

We left Coromondel for Rotorua, where the smell greeted us before much else. There is a huge amount of geothermal activity in the area surrounding Rotorua and Taupo, which are situated in Central North Island in New Zealand. So much so that places in the centre of town are steaming pools of sulfur. In places, sections of brick or cobblestone pathways will be blocked off, due to the bubbling water surfacing through the infrastructure. Despite the rotten-egg smell, Rotorua is the host of many pleasures to keep a tourist entertained for at least a couple of days. There are a limited number of places that the public can access warm sulfur pools for free, but they tend to be a bit tricky to get to. We visited Hell’s Gate, one of the commercial offerings, and after a walk around the grounds, which were full of pools of varying heats (some reaching far above the boiling point of water, possible due to the high mineral content of the water,) we indulged in a mud bath and sulfur soak. Frankie says relax.

Rotorua is also well known for it’s Māori cultural performances. With, I’ll admit, rather low expectations of the event, we attended a show at Te Puia in the evening. A tour of the area, including Pohutu Geyser, was followed with a cultural show and hāngi – a traditional Maori meal prepared in, essentially, an oven dug into the ground. We learnt a good amount about the culture of the Māori people from the area, marveled at the geyser spewing 20-odd metres into the air, and settled down to watch the show. The talent of the performers was undeniable, but the authenticity for something like this is always a bit lost on me when the set-up is so commercial. Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable evening, and the food was far beyond expectations. This sort of evening won’t be a steal, with the guided tour, performance, and meal combo running $150 a head. We had wanted to visit the park to see the geyser anyway (which is also not free), and part of the crew was very keen on the performance, so we decided it was worth it to combine it all and splurge on a big evening.

Geyser

Continuing the highlights of North Island New Zealand the following day, part of the crew went up to Matamata to visit Hobbiton, where they were thoroughly impressed with the exceptionally cute miniature hobbit houses set into the hill. Dad and I opted for a day around Rotorua, which most notably included a couple of hours at The Wall, where I got Dad up on his first indoor rock climb.

The next overnight was New Plymouth, where some slightly removed cousins of ours live, and had generously offered to put us up for a couple of nights. En route to New Plymouth is Waitomo Caves, a series of underground caves that have been developed for tourism and adventure tourism. With different levels of intensity to choose from, the family and I were all happy. Everyone else went for a couple of walking tours through two different caves (Ruakuri and the Glowworm Cave), while I opted for a five-hour adventure called Black Abyss with the Legendary Black Water Rafting Co.

Black Abyss took the team down a narrow abseil, through a section of Ruakuri cave and included rafting in the darkness, below a canopy of glowworms; jumps into and swims through the water; and a free climb out of the cave over two waterfalls. The day was awesome, and satisfied some of the craving for adventure I’d been feeling.

The next couple of days were spent in New Plymouth, on the west coast of the North Island, at our cousins’. My personal highlight for the area was Mount Taranaki, a rather imposing volcano a little ways from town. I spent a few hours hiking up and down the mountain, and got picked up around five p.m., just as the wind was really picking up and the rain started. A couple of days later, we heard the tragic news that two experienced hikers had gotten stuck on Mount Taranaki the same day I had been there, and had both passed away. Mount Taranaki claims the lives of more people each year than any other in New Zealand, due in a large part, I’m sure, to its easily accessibly location. Furthermore, the volcano sits essentially alone, close to the coast, as in the line for fast and variable weather. After seeing how quickly the weather can change firsthand, as well as the steep, icy ascent to the summit, I can believe the stats.

Taranaki

A big day of driving was ahead of us the day we left New Plymouth, as we headed past Auckland to the town of Whangerei in Northland. En route to Whangerei is Kawakawa, whose main tourist attraction is the public toilets. This sounds a bit odd, but the Gaudi-esque toilets, designed by Austrian architect Frederick Hundertwasser are actually well worth stopping for. With that pit stop behind us, we continued to our destination. Whangerei itself was a bit average, but our days surrounding it were quite superb. In the morning, we headed up to the Bay of Islands, and ended up jumping on a last-minute cruise through the islands. This trip far exceeded our expectations, mainly due to the outstanding dolphin spotting we were privileged to. The islands and surrounds are beautiful, but the pod of dolphins we saw – playing, jumping, and splashing through the water – was the pile of cherries on top of a very tasty cake. That adventure turned into a full-day affair, so we saved the rest of our Northland to-do list for the following day. This involved driving over to the west coast to visit a large Kauri tree stand, which includes some of the oldest Kauri trees in the world. The incredible size and age of the trees before us was outstanding. Google Kauri trees. (Because I still have no photos. Fail. Fail. Fail.)

KauriDolphins

With that, we headed back to Auckland to explore the city for a couple of day. This was an opportunity for my family and Kiwi’s family to meet, which they did, over brunch. Things on that front all went very well, which is obviously a huge bonus.

And then it was time to go. Well, for them to go. After spending a month with my family, and picking up essentially where we had left off over a year ago, it was definitely a tough goodbye. I’m incredibly lucky that they were able to come down to the other side of the world for as long as they did. We had an amazing trip, and made some amazing memories that will last a lifetime. Thanks guys!

Queens of this Castle

So I’ve failed, and now continue to fail in a slightly less severe way. These blog posts are waaay overdue. And now they are happening, but sans photos. No photos because I somehow didn’t get around to going through all of the photos from the family vacay, and now they are sitting on a harddrive in Auckland, not to be seen again until Christmas, when I will have enough time to sort through several hundred, do a quick edit, and belatedly add them to this blog. Yes.

So, sadly, for now (because otherwise these posts will probably, let’s be honest, never happen) there are stories, and no pretty shiny photos. See: fail. Nevertheless, the show must go on, as they say. And this show left off somewhere in Coromandel, in the North Island of New Zealand.

Coromandel is a pretty stunning part of New Zealand, dotted with beautiful bays, excellent beaches, and tumbling hills that offer extraordinary views. During the first full day we had to explore the area, we headed south from Whitianga to Hot Water Beach. New Zealand is full of hot springs, and on this particular beach (It’s best to hit it on receding tide) hot water bubbles up from underneath the sand. A small spade or two is all you need to build yourself your very own private spa pool. The trick is getting the delicate mix of steaming water coming up from below and cold water on the surface right. What appeared to be perfectly fine hot pools lay abandoned, and a cautious toe into the burning water told us why. We ended up with a reasonably well-combined pool; frequent stirring keeping one side from remaining too hot and the other too cold. The occasional breach of the sand wall between your pool and another could throw off your system entirely, and frequent shoveling was required to keep the small walls from caving down entirely. Yet somehow this rated exceptionally high in the quality of spa pools I’ve sat in. Perhaps only higher is a friend’s homemade, perfectly round (and therefore rollable and movable) spa that uses a removable woodburner to heat the water. (And yes, we’ve already had the debate of whether a spa made of wood that eats wood is slightly cannibalistic.)

Hot Water Beach

After that we headed over to Cathedral Cove, where a stunning naturally formed archway dominates the beach. The area is accessible only by a small walk or by water, which adds to its appeal. I’m sure there’s a lovely photo, somewhere. Damn it.

Cathedral Cove

The following day we split ranks, half of the group opting to take a glass-bottom boat trip around the area. My mom and I planned to take the gravel road back across the peninsula, visiting some stops along the way including a Kauri tree grove and a walk up to Castle Rock. Kauri trees have got to be in the race for the largest and oldest trees in the world, and they can be found in different groves across New Zealand. Castle Rock was what I was particularly intrigued with, as it been described briefly as a short but tough hike up to the rock, with amazing view of the peninsula from the top. Guidebooks and Google searches offered not much more information, so we though we’d give it a go.

From the beginning, it was clear that this was not a standard, touristy, well-developed hiking trail. We headed down an almost unmarked road that appeared to generally be used for logging. Our Toyota minivan’s capability was put to the test, as we climbed steep gravel inclines, not entirely convinced this was the correct way. We finally parked the van in a deserted logging lot and walked uncertainly toward the start of the “trail,” an unmarked path heading rather subtly into the bush. It appeared to be roughly pointing the correct direction – up – so we began our adventure. The trail was certainly rustic and was quite a mission to navigate towards the top – apparently too much of a mission, as we ended up missing the split in the trail, and somehow seemed to be heading back down in a loop, a loop that did not include the top of the rock or any particularly fabulous views. Rather determined to see this through, I spotted a break through the bush heading up – someone had clearly done the same as us and decided to break their own trail through the slippery and uncooperative vine-like trees that were growing there. Struggling up, I realized it would actually be quite a lot more difficult to come down, so I carried on. I eventually rejoined what appeared to be the main trail (it was very hard to tell, as it was little more than a few broken sticks and a lightly worn dirt path), and continued on in the general direction of up. I finally made it to the promised rock scramble to the top, briefly weighing the possibility that I would not be able to get back down (Mom had waited at the break in the trail, not particularly keen at the idea of wrestling with a vine forest), and I wasn’t sure if my voice would carry if I got truly stuck. With the relative confidence I’d gained from my recent endeavors into rock climbing, I decided to continue, and scrambled up to the top of Castle Rock. The view was truly something, most of the peninsula in my sights from the vantage point. The exposure was also quite thrilling, and it took me a couple of minute to be comfortable exploring the few square meters at the top. After savouring the climb for a moment, I began the mission back down which, as with all steep and technical hikes, was rather trickier than going up. I came out where we should have turned initially, and realized upon exited why we had not seen the nearly nonexistent break in the trees that led to the other trail. Mom and I finished the descent, rather pleased with how the unexpected adventure had panned out, and headed back home for one more night.

Castle Rock Views

Castle Rock

 

The TrailThe Finish Line

Te Ika-a-Māui

Contrasts are one of the best parts of travelling. Finding yourself in foreign lands where donkeys carting loads of hides reaches a new level if the person pulling the donkey is chatting on their iPhone. One of the most interesting countries I’ve visited, from that view, is Morocco, where beaches crash into snow-capped mountains that crash into desert, a heady mix of spice markets and high-end shopping found in the midst. As this section of the world would arguably never reach the same level of confronting contrast as many developing countries would, it was still an excellent jolt to go leave the hot, orange, flat and empty deserts of the Australian Outback and be transported to the incredibly lush, green, rolling hills and winding roads of New Zealand’s North Island.

North Island

We arrived in Auckland and promptly left, as we planned to spend our time in Auckland at the end of our two weeks in New Zealand. One night at what we affectionately dubbed the IKEA Hotel near the airport and we were off to the east (roughly), to spend a couple of nights in the Coromandel Peninsula. On the way to our overnight destination of Whitianga, we made a couple of most excellent pit stops. We began our culinary adventure in New Zealand with a stop at the Coromandel Oyster Company, just outside of the town of Coromandel. My uncle had been on a mission for oysters since arriving in Australia, and I think that we finally found the place for him. We actually drove past it initially, and were about 5 kilometres down the road when we all voiced what we’d been thinking, that this shack near the water would damn well be the best place we’d experience fresh New Zealand oysters, and we turned back in the pursuit.

I’m not a big fan of shellfish. Or, indeed, most ocean-dwelling creatures – apart from fish. (Which I love. Sushi is the best thing ever. Mmmm … sushi ….) I once read an article or a blog post or some such by a man who hated olives and had, by chance, found himself living in Spain where an olive is more likely to be found as an appetizer (and all of the time, really) than really much else. (Incidentally, Spain produces something like 80% – 90% of all of the olive oil in the world and much of it is shipped first to Italy, to be packaged and branded as Italian olive oil, before it is distributed to the rest of the world.) His solution to this conundrum was to eat every olive he encountered, with the theory being that he would eventually stop hating them. Tried and true, this theory worked for him, and I assume he is off on a Spanish island somewhere, scarfing/scoffing* down olives by the handful. I found this a useful gem of inspiration, as I have often felt as though I am missing out with my inability to appreciate seafood. I have previously tried this method of eating all encounters with mushrooms, something that my family can attest to I’ve hated since childhood. The result was that I no longer shy away from these common fungus, and even go as far as suggest their addition to a multitude of dishes.

My transition to seafood has taken signicantly longer. I have learnt there is little point in trying calamari when someone who loves calamari says that it is average, as it just puts me several steps back in my journey to love all of these weird, slimy, chewy, mushy, bits from the ocean. So, I have refined my tasting journey to only include what seafood lovers would consider good. This was certainly one of those times.

Coromandel Oyster Company

Our other main stop during our first day’s drive was at what I have dubbed Secret Beach. Wainuiototo Bay is known as one (if not the) most beautiful beaches in New Zealand and, according to the locals, is one of the ten best beaches in the world (I have yet to see this claim echoed by any measuring body). Part of the appeal of Wainuiototo is its seclusion and entire lack of development. The beach is reached by a 30 minute walk, mostly over large, slippery rocks, from the town of Whangapoua. There is no development visible from the beach, a fact that, is likely to change in the coming years. A visit to Wainuiototo in its current state is something that you may not get the pleasure of again.

Secret Beach View

Secret Beach

And with that, we continued our twisty, windy, curvy drive towards Whitianga, our jumping off point for the next couple of days.

Views

* I had a fight with my British roommate over the correct word to use to describe eating aggressively and excessively. Urban Dictionary confirmed that scarfing is the North American slang and scoffing the British. Important things.