Tuesday, January 31, 2012

New Zealand North Island adventures-the final days

Tide Pools at the Bay of Islands
So, what else did I do during my North Island week?
At Tongariro, I spent quite a bit of time carefully planning out an itinerary would get me back in Auckland on Sunday.  I was feeling sort of burned out on driving, and decided that I would do no more than 250k per day.

Carvings at the Maori meeting house in Waitangi
I set out from Tongariro with no booked lodging, and it really paid off this time.  When I got to my initially planned destination, the city didn't really grab me. I had a quick lunch by the beach there, and drove on. And on and on.  I stopped at several towns along the way, and ended up at Thames on the Coromandel peninsula.  The guidebook isn't crash hot on Thames, but it turned out to be a nice place for me to regroup after my day of (mostly) scenic driving.  I walked on the beach, and got very good vegetarian food at a cafe in town (the only vegetarian restaurant I'd seen in New Zealand).  And as an aside, the peninsula is pretty scenic- there is a small mountain ridge running down the middle, with farm land and beaches around the perimeter.  It looks like a nice place to ride.

My massive day of driving (wayy more than my 250k goal) set me up get up to the Northland, something I'd wanted to do but had dismissed as way too much driving. I headed north to the Bay of Islands.  I got to Paihia by 2 pm (slowed by a traffic snarl in Auckland), and headed over to Waitaingi to visit the site where the eponymous treaty between England and Maori tribes was signed in the 1800s.  This was pretty interesting and I particularly liked the carvings in the meeting house.  There was also a giant Maori canoe made out of the trunks of three giant kauri trees and some other historical stuff.

After a relaxing night at the bed and breakfast that I'd booked through a last minute bookings site (it was really nice, by far the nicest place I stayed on the trip), I headed on towards the Waipoua Kauri forest, the largest tract of native old-growth forest in the Northland, home to giant, ancient trees.  This had really grabbed my attention. A lot of the north island that I'd seen is covered with grassland created years ago by the removal of the native bush.  I was excited to see what old-growth native forest looked like (at least in this area of the country).

Kauri old-growth forest. Actually, the kauri tree in this picture is kind of subtle- you can only see the canopy- but I like the shot because it captures the ferny density of the bush
This was my most scenic day of driving in the north island.  So scenic, that I missed my turn onto highway 12 and drove 30k out of my way, adding about an hour to my trip since it was very twisty driving.  Oh well!  I really enjoyed the remote, rural feeling of this part of the country.

Tane Mahuta, stated to be the country's oldest kauri tree at around 1200 years old. It is very big!
For reference, an average sized adult barely pokes out above the foliage at the base
Red bark
Anyhow, it was cool to see the forest and the drive through the park area was itself highly scenic and twisty driving.  The park itself was highly low-key. Just a couple of pull-offs from HW12, with a couple of well-groomed walking trails leaing out to the bigger trees. I looked for an information center on Kauri biology, but didn't find anything beyond a few informational placards at the Tane pullout.
The next morning, I spent a bit of time at the Kauri museum in Matakohe, which is an extremely interesting heritage museum chock full of historical photos, historical equipment for kauri harvest (including a sawmill, which was turned on and running while I was there), kauris and kauri stuff (furniture, ships, you name it), and a lot of info on the lives of the bushmen, which is what they called the guys who were out there harvesting the forests. There were also modern collections, including a rather large chainsaw collection.  It was one of the best museums of this type that I have been to, though I came away from it feeling a little sad that most of the Kauris have been cut down. Then, I drove onto Auckland, about which I will post separately.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Volcanos, oh my! Tongariro National Park

Mt Ngauruhoe.I should mention that Mt Ngaurahoe played Mordor in the Lord of the Rings films, and it really did have a fantastic creepy presence. The thing is huge- over 2000 meters- and very stark.
In Rotorua, I chatted with some young women who had been traveling for about a year.  They had just come from Tongariro national park, and said that the Tongariro Crossing was really great, not to be missed.  I knew that I would be unable to do the 18k hike, due to my foot situation (improving, but still very sore), but I headed off to the park anyway, since it sounded remote, beautiful and interesting.  Maybe I'd find a good hike that I could do even with my sore foot.

The drive to the park was pretty scenic, and traffic ebbed to almost South Island (low) levels once I'd passed Lake Taupo, new Zealand's largest lake.  There is a century ride around Taupo, as an aside, and it looks like a pretty great route.

The trail winds through the valley towards Mt Ngaurahoe and Mt Tongariro (left-hand peak). There is third volcano that is not in this picture

The trail travels between lava flows. This required a little clambering, which was fun
I arrived at around 1 pm, and headed to the national park headquarters in Whakapapa (pronounced fuc-uh-papa). The ranger recommended going out to the volcanos that day, since the weather was unusually clear and more typical fog would move in that evening and through the next day.  Plus, my relatively late start would leave the trails relatively uncrowned, as the tongariro crossing day hikers mostly depart in the morning. 

Interesting lava flows. The newer lava is black while the older lava weathers to a reddish color
I headed out to the trail head, which involved a 10k drive in over bumpy gravel roads. I picked up a Slovenian couple who were hitchhiking back to trailhead. They'd departed the prior evening, slept up in the volcanos in a tent, then finished in the morning.  A nice way to miss the crowds, who typically start in the early morning to complete the estimated eight to ten hour tramp in the same day.  

Vegetation struggling to grow on the lava. The white stuff was a fluffy moss, not sulfur as I'd thought initially
I headed out on the trail with an initial goal of getting to the base of the volcanos and a stretch goal of climbing to the south crater.  Signs warned of eruption hazards and provided instructions on how to shelter if there was volcanic activity.  Two of the three volcanos are active and Ngauruhoe erupted as recently as 1975. 

Tongariro Crossing Map and profile

 I did pretty well with the hiking, and had a really fantastic, peaceful walk to the springs, and up part of the crater.  There were very few people on the trail and I enjoyed the solitude.  I did about half of the climb up to the south crater. I so wanted to get up there and check out the view on the other side, but my practical nature overrode that desire and I turned around and headed back.  I didn't want to max out my foot. Still, I had an awesome hike and I was glad to get in a hike with some views and a little climbing even if my foot/fitness precluded doing the entire thing.  

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Rotorua thermal fun

Multicolored thermal spring
I arrived on North Island on Jan 23, Dan having returned home the prior day.  I hadn't thought much about my itinerary.  I had a positive impression of Rotorua, due to its mountain biking fame.  Plus, there are hot springs there. So, I picked up my rental car and drove off to Rotorua.

One of several massive steaming craters
I'd heard kiwis refer to Rotorua as "rotovegas", and, as you'd expect from that no-so-affectionate nickname, the town was ultra-touristy, with a sea of motels ringing the perimeter.  I was frankly kind of underwhelmed by it. Having spent the preceding three weeks in the uncrowded, rugged south island camping, it was a bit of a shock to my system.  

Huge, multi-colored thermal spring near Rotorua
But, I regrouped and got down to some serious touristing.  First, I headed off to the local hot spring, which was very nice.  Sulfur springs with a view of Lake Rotorua. What is not to like? I spent quite a lot of time there, possibly too much. 

I also went to a Maori cultural thingy, at the urging of my motel's proprietress.  Mixed reviews on this, though elements were interesting, such as the chanting, dancing and skills demonstration.

Sulfur pool. This was super lurid yellow, much brighter than in this photo
The next day, I had planned to rent a mountain bike and ride in the local redwood park. But, I woke up with a bad headache, probably from too much hot springing the day before. Or maybe it was from travel fatigue.  So instead, I went to a thermal area and looked at a small geyser, thermal pools, boiling mud and other interesting features including a boiling hot waterfall!

Thermal lake comples
This turned out to be very interesting and I really enjoyed hiking around the site, which was bigger and more varied than I had expected.  

I was about done with Rotorua at this point, but I'd prebooked two nights (my planning side coming out, now that Dan was gone). I was still pretty tired, and not really up for mt biking which is kind what I'd planned to do that day.  So, I hung around for the rest of the day, not doing a whole heck of a lot. Score one for the Dan system of no advanced planning:  if I hadn't prebooked, I would have been able to roll onward, unencumbered by a prepaid reservation.   I did get in a little ride around the area, which was nice. I tooled around the lake, looking at some historic buildings and walked a bit in the city park, which also has steaming thermal features. Did I mention that the town periodically smelled of sulfur? It was neat.

Piles of food for the hangi (Maori feast)
I never did get out on the mountain bike. I rode by the redwood park, which contains an elaborate network of mtb trails, and saw lots of folks riding into the park and it looked pretty great.  Definitely something to check out next time.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Aoraki Mount Cook

Mt. Cook peak (R)
Well, I've gotten a bit behind on the posting and I am now in the North Island looking for adventure, so I'll just do a quick photo post about Mt Cook.

Quick background: we'd been hearing all trip long that Mt Cook national park is not to be missed, but that it's fogged in and cloudy quite a lot of the time.  Still great in the fog, said one guy, but really something in good weather.  Mt Cook is New Zealand's highest peak (12000 feet, by memory).

We drove off from Queenstown and after a stop at the Kawarai Bridge to view bungy jumpers (pretty awesome spot- old bridge over a deep beautiful gorge. I'll post a picture later), headed out to Mt Cook through Lindis pass.  It was a gorgeous clear day and we (again) marveled at how the south island landscapes seem to change with every turn of the road. Today we drove from Queenstown's huge lake with pointy mountain ranges (long drive over windy road cut into the edge of cliffs by the lake), through a pass cut along a gorge, by old gold mining settlements, through south island's farming and wine region (Cromwell area), then through Lindis Pass and up into the MacKenzie region of New Zealand- tough ranching type landscapes with sweeping vistas and lots of wind.  Lindis Pass was especially cool- no pictures because I was driving- but the area is covered with this tussock grass, which is kind of mustard yellow and sprouts in tufts, and lots of wildflowers. The mountains were quite stark and the area had the quality of a lunar landscape for me- stark and otherworldy. 

For a photo post, this has gotten kind of wordy.  Anyhow, after Lindis Pass, we started to see Mt Cook and the alps even though they were about 50 miles away.  They looked huge and very snow capped.  as we got nearer, we had about 60 k of driving with views like this:

The enormous lake is glacial and has the most surreal blue color, not captured in this photo.  We rolled into the national park campground around dinner time, and found a spot in the crowded campground, the only camping facility in the entire park aside from alpine huts. It was basically a large parking lot, but set under a huge glacier-covered peak:

The campers were an interesting mix of backpackers, climbers, middle-aged tourists like ourselves, and groups of younger travelers. We fell asleep listening to the singing/drumming of one group, far enough away in the site that it was pleasant to hear rather than annoying.  The night was pretty cold- a ranger told me it had been below freezing. We were snugly warm under several quilts in the van.

I woke up to a very sore left foot.  I'd noticed a strain after the Kepler track hike, where I'd perhaps overdone the distance a bit. The downhilling- where one stands up on the pedals while ride a bucking 35 pound bike down a mountain over bumps and drops and turns- had seriously aggravated the strain.  My big toe was really sore.  I was super bummed about this, but we decided to try a shortish hike up a neighboring peak to the Sally Tarns (small lakes).  

I got up about half-way, but the foot was really hurting so I turned around and went out to a gentle view point with views up to Mt Cook's summit and the adjacent mountains. Dan continued to the top and got some spectacular photos.

The dark wall is a glacial moraine. The milky blue water is glacial run-off, similar in color to the giant lake in the picture above. Mt Cook is the angular peak in the center. We were camping at around 2000 feet of altitude, so just 10,000 more feet to the top of Mt Cook.
 Sally Tarn

I really need to adjust the angle of this shot! It was not on a hill!
I tried to salvage the day by doing a little ride, but that also hurt my foot. I got in around 18 miles including some gravel road riding, and called it a day. 

I sulked a bit at my lameness (in both senses: literal lameness but also at how lame it was to be in a beautiful hiking paradise with gimpy fitness and a sore foot), but couldn't stay upset for long because it was still an exceedingly pleasant place to be.  As I sat by the viewpoint stretching, there were several small avalanches up on the glacier and it was really cool to hear the booming sound and watch the snow roar down the mountain.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Downhilling in Queenstown

View from the Skyline gondola- snow on the Remarkable mountains! Bungy jumping platform is in the lower right
We rolled into Queenstown around lunch time, planning to stay for a few hours or overnight at best, then roll out to drive towards Mt Cook.  The drive from Te Anau had been spectacular- a cold snap the night before left the mountains topped with snow and it was exceedingly scenic all along the way.  But back to Qtn: we arrived with kind of low expectations.  Sure the natural setting is gorgeous, said the kiwis with whom we'd sought route advice along the way, but it's really a spot for people who want to go bar hopping, or bungy jumping.  Twenty somethings like it, said another person, strongly implying that forty-somethings like ourselves would hate it.

We took a second gondola to go luging
We looked around a bit, glanced in at the holiday park that was right in town, and decided that we'd just stay a few hours. The holiday park was right near a gondola right up the side of the local mountains, so we headed up. Dan signed us up for a couple of luge runs.  We noticed downhill mountain bikers going up in the lift- kind of cool, I thought. But I wouldn't feel comfortable doing something like that. After all, the last time I rode a regular cross country mountain bike I crashed badly and injured my knee, something that I've been recovering from for the last couple of years.

But after wandering around town a bit after the luging (which was pretty tame, more of a kids thing), I got kind of interested in downhilling.  Dan sealed the deal by investigating bike rentals.  We'd stay overnight in Qtn, then downhill the next day.

Dan with rental downhill bike and protective gear. I had similar gear, but no good pics alas

Partial garmin track
Suffice it to say downhilling was a blast! I stuck to the beginner run (Strava profile of a full run, with a partial run in the beginning is above- I started the garmin late) but did it four times with increasing speed and confidence.

Trail map: the black runs look scary! I did only the green run, but Dan did one of the blue runs as well
The bike weighed a freaking ton, but it was very forgiving and was just a blast to run over bumps, around banked corners, and even get a little air on some of the drops.  It was really neat to blast down the hill (relatively speaking, as we were going rather slowly compared to the more experienced folks on the run). I did feel a bit nervous at the start, especially on the corners which had sheer drop offs, but the joy of riding fast downhill kind of calmed my nerves and my confidence increased throughout the day.

Anyhow, to wrap up the Qtn experience, we had a blast there. Sure, it's super touristy and very youth-oriented. But, compared to the average US mega-tourist destination, it did not feel very crowded and we enjoyed the downhilling plus had some decent Thai food for dinner. What fun!

Backtracking a bit, we came upon this coal-fired train on our drive to Qtn. It's the Kingston Flyer, and we could climb into the locomotive even though the thing was stoked with coal and gushing stream. (I love New Zealand's lack of concern about liability.  I practically broke my ankle getting out of the cab and no one was concerned about suit)

And this is a shot from our campground that morning in Te Anau-- after a freeing night with heavy rain, we woke up to snow capped peaks. Crazy weather for summer, but very pretty.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Rainy hike on Kepler Track

Te Anau has a lot of great hiking, including access to two of New Zealand's great walks, the Kepler and Routeburn tracks.

Our campervan and rainbow on Lake Te Anau
After night of hard rain, we woke up to sun and a big rainbow.  More rain was forecasted, with hail and snow at higher altitude, so we decided to tramp on the Kepler track, going in on the flatter, more protected side, rather than the side that climbed up above the tree line.
Me all suited up for hiking in the chilly rain


The hike started by going over two small suspension bridges, which kind of rocked as you walked across. The bridges were beautifully built. As Dan put it, New Zealand takes its tramping seriously.

It continued under this dense beech tree canopy- hardly any rain was getting through the trees!  The pink triangle in the photo marks a predator trap, which you can just see to the right of the base of the tree.  New Zealand's native bird populations have been devastated by introduced predators such as rats, stoats and possums.  Many of the birds are flightless and thus very vulnerable to predators, particularly when the birds are young.  But, the stoats and rats also climb trees and can get into the nests of the flying birds. There were traps placed every 100 meters along the trail, part of an effort to protect the birds.

I loved the mossy, ferny landscape. The path was very soft and springy!

We hiked out to one of the Kepler Track huts, chatted with the ranger, warmed up by the stove, then returned. "Hut" is kind of an understatement, as the structure was actually quite large and robustly built, sleeping about 40 trampers a night. There are about 90 huts throughout NZ in various spots.

All in all, an enjoyable hike. We got really really wet, but I was warmly dressed and didn't mind the chill at all. The hike ended up being about 11 miles long. Towards the end of the walk, I got some twinges in my left foot, which didn't worry me at the time but would foretell some coming troubles.
When we got back to town, we headed out to the local horse race event, set up on a street in the town, with betting and all. The rain had largely blown through at this point, and we watched the races, and listened to the local pipe band (bagpipes). Kind of a small town, country moment, which was very enjoyable. 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Doubtful Sound and Te Anau

From Wanaka, we traveled to Te Anau, the gateway to the Fiordland region in the south-western bit of the South Island. We'd chatted with a nice kiwi couple on the summit of Roy mountain and they recommended Te Anau as a classic kiwi country vacation town, in contrast to Wanaka, which they characterized as "touristy".  

(Cruising on Doubtful Sound)

Te Anau is also the gateway town to Milford Sound. The kiwi couple, however, recommended Doubtful Sound as a more mellow, less crowded alternative to Milford. More peaceful, and just as beautiful, they said.  As a bonus the trip departed from nearby Lake Manapouri, and included a tour of the underground hydroelectric plant.  You drive right into the core of the mountain, said the kiwi guy.  Sounded cool to us, and we signed up for the trip.

(Dan on the top deck of the smallish boat. We took all of our rain gear, and enjoyed the decks of the boats while most of the other passengers stayed below)

We woke up to rain and a cloudy sky.  The Fiordland is one of the rainiest places on earth, with rain being measured in the meters.  But the past month had been unusually dry, with no rain at all.  We were not displeased with the rainy day, however.  Seeing the Sound in the rain seemed like a good way to experience the region, which after all is usually extremely rainy.

(Part of the generator facility in the hydroelectric plant)

After a high speed cruise across Lake Manapouri (strava says 30 mph!), the boat docked in West Arm, the intake region for the power plant.  The plant removes water from Lake Manapouri and it drops a fair way down to Doubtful Sound through an enormously long tunnel drilled through the mountain. 

 We rode on a bus through a winding tunnel deep into the mountain and got to view part of the generating facility.  It was really, really cool in a James Bond film kind of way.  Lots of interesting history and technology to learn about, including the story of how the locals were able to prevent having the levels of the lakes raised for the hydroelectric project, thus better preserving the lake ecosystems.

(Clouds and misty mountain peaks in Doubtful Sound)

After a short bus ride over Wilmot pass on a gravel road installed to carry machinery into the hydroelectric facility, we boarded the ship in Deep Cove for the Doubtful Sound cruise.  It was really great, and the rain was pretty mellow, which permitted viewing and photography from the decks.

We reached the mouth of the Sound and cruised a bit into the Tasman Sea to a fur seal colony on some rocks.  We also saw two large pods of bottle-nosed dolphins, including some babies!

There were lots of little waterfalls running down the side of peaks, but apparently, there are normally many more waterfalls and much more volume coming off of the peaks.  The above waterfalls, for example, usually engulf the ship.  The low flow was due to the drought, of course.

(Misty peaks)

(All bundled up for the rain and wind)

What a great day!  We saw only one other ship the entire time! 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Roys Peak track, Wanaka

I selected this hike because it seemed like a friendly little local mountain- it is just fifteen minutes drive up the road from Wanaka, where we stayed for a few days.  When we pulled up at the trail head, we were confronted with the view up to the peak- the entire trail is exposed with full views up to the the summit. Here's the view from the base. 

It looked pretty big and steep and it was-  over 4000 vertical feet to the summit over about 5 miles.  I wasn't sure if I would make it all the way up given my compromised fitness and wonky joints. But I started trudging up the trail after Dan, just to see how far up I could get.

The views were great the entire way up, and there were highly attractive and fluffy sheep sprinkled around the hillside.
I loved this pointy ridge.  Around this point, I told Dan to go ahead to the summit, then turn around to get me and I'd descend when he joined me. I was beat and going very slowly. 

But he lingered at the top, chatting with other hikers, and by the time he came down to get me I was almost at the top. So I made my way to the summit. Yeah! The views were expansive and it was neat to look down and see the trail we'd come up.  Wanaka is shown in the photo above.

Looking down on the sharp ridge. There was a trail running pretty far out on nthe ridge, but we didn't
explore it.

View on the backside. We had a 360 degree view with wonderful clear weather.  What a day! Getting down was super slow due to my deficient joints and the steepness of the trail.  I may invest in hiking poles, as they appear to relieve some of the load on the knees.