Well, I’m back.

March 5th, 2007

New Zealand Time – March 5th, 11:11 (make a wish)

Another lovely day in New Zealand, and a loooong post from Hollis…..

I’ve spent the past two weeks traveling solo around the North Island. It was an incredible time: I hiked over volcanic mountains, swam and played in the rolling surf of 2 oceans, walked through a geothermal wonderland, soaked in hot springs, experienced a traditional (delicious!) Maori hangi, explored glowworm caves on an underground river, stood speechless before the ancient kauri trees of the far north, took a tour up 90 Mile Beach by bus, sand-boarded down massive sand dunes, stood at the northern tip of the country and gazed a little tearfully out across the endless Pacific towards home. I stayed in the best and the worst of the north island’s hostels. I ate a lot of peanut butter & jam sandwiches. I mispronounced a hundred town names. I rented a car for the first time and drove with surprising ease on the left side of the road. I met lots of awesome people from all over the globe…..Staying in hostels is, for the most part, comfortable, cheap, and fun. By far, the majority of people I met over the past 2 weeks have been from Germany. NZ is clearly a very popular pick for Germans. (Hearing their accents made me lonesome for Ruth and Hansi.) I met people from Holland, France, Switzerland, Malta, Great Britain, the States,…. and also quite a few Canadians. The only major drawback was the lack of personal space. It was hugely comforting to not be the only solo traveler. While it was thrilling to be out on my own in the world, at times I dearly wished for someone to share the adventure with…. It feels great to be back in Palmy with Greg!

I caught an Intercity bus Monday morning, February 19th, feeling very excited, and more than a bit nervous. I’d never done anything of the kind before – I had no idea what to expect of staying in hostels, and while I was pretty confident I’d be ok, there was a always the slight possibility that I’d get lost, miss one of my buses, lose my wallet, lose my luggage, lose Greg’s camera, break Greg’s camera, drop Greg’s camera into the ocean (or a steaming geyser) (or a lake of sulphur), starve on the cruel slopes of a dusty, deserted volcano, be eaten by savage man-eating sharks, …… you know, all the reasonable things one worries about when setting off an adventure.

The bus ride to National Park was quite enjoyable. We drove down “Whanganui River Road”, through steep, craggy, green mountains. The road winds and twists around and up and down, sometimes meeting up with the river – enough to make even the most stalwart feel carsick. The mountains are covered in sheep. How they climb way up to those dizzy heights is beyond me. We stopped at a small town for lunch, and I had a lovely chat with a 92 year old lady who was traveling home from PARTICIPATING in the over 35 Masters sporting event. Kiwis obviously have a level of physical fitness far, far, far beyond my own.

National Park is a small, quiet town – it reminded me of Port Loring. It survives off of the tourism in next-door Tongariro National Park, for which the town is named. In the summer people tramp (hike) all through the park. In the winter, they ski on Mt Ruapehu. I stayed at “Howard’s Lodge”, a large hostel, clean and bright, though somewhat lacking in the cozy friendliness of other hostels I stayed at during my travels. I checked in and made arrangements to be taken to the park the following day to attempt the famous Tongariro Crossing. The Tongariro Crossing is known as “the best one day walk in New Zealand.” Lesson learned: when kiwis say “walk”, they actually mean a gruelling odyssey across the planet’s most treacherous, unforgiving terrain, fraught with dangers and pain….. certainly a challenge for your average, chocolate-loving, tea-drinking, unsuspecting Canadian girl. I can’t believe how pathetically out of shape I am!! The hike was amazing. It was a gorgeous day, the scenery was breathtaking, and it felt pretty damn fantastic to successfully complete the 17 kilometre trek. At times, though, it was pure agony. (I don’t know which was worse – the burning physical exhaustion after crawling hand and foot up the near-vertical sides of the craters, or the humiliation experienced watching people in their 70’s trip lightly passed me as I sat gasping for air.) I climbed 800 m, to a cool height of 1900 m above sea level. I reached the summit, glanced at the view (“yeah, great, fantastic, whooo”), threw myself down on the black, twisted rocks, and then devoured a snickers bar like it was the last one on earth. Needless to say, at then end of the day I was completely worn-out. I ate an entire pizza, had a beer (boy, did it taste good), and passed out. I slept like a baby that night.

On Wednesday, Feb. 21, I took the bus northwest to Rotorua. In Rotorua, I stayed at the Funky Green Voyager, a great hostel, with a very warm, eco-friendly atmosphere. Its the kind of place I always imagined hostels to be like. I met a few interesting people there. … Claire (Ireland), Hon (British Isles), Heinrich (Germany – “Och, ze Tongariro Crossing vos not so bad as you say.” Thankyou, Heinrich, I’ve realized that I’m chub.) Rotorua is a major tourist centre in NZ. There’s a zillion things to do, and they’ve thought of every way possible to get you to spend your money. Take “zorbing” for example: rolling down a hill in a giant bubble. I passed on that one. The main attraction of the area, though, are the geothermal parks. The city sits on top of a major geothermal area, with geysers, hot springs, boiling mud, and sulphur pools galore. You know you’re in Rotorua when you smell the the rotten-egg like reek of hydrogen-sulphide gas.

My first morning there I took the bus out to the Agrodome and watched an hour long sheep show. It was pretty cool – I loved the sheep dog demonstrations. They sheared a sheep on stage for us. We were allowed to pet the sheep – quite thrilling for me, being the sheep fan that I am. Not so thrilling for the dim-witted sheep. All they cared about was the food handed out by the stage-assistant.

That afternoon I stopped at the Rainbow Springs park to take the Kiwi Encounter Tour. They toured us around the kiwi re-population project – reminded me very much of the scenes in Jurassic Park when they tour through the egg hatchery. (Except, of course, kiwi are much smaller and much less carniverous than your average velociraptor.) We got to see a newly hatched kiwi, as well as 3 fully-grown kiwi in a simulated environment. Kiwi are the most bizarre birds on the planet. Nocturnal, and flightless, with only the stunted beginnings of wings on their skeletal frames, they have enormous taloned feet (their only defense against enemies), and long beaks with nostrils located at the very end. They poke their beaks into the earth, sniffing to find grubs which they munch down quite contently. You can actually hear them snuffling along – it was too adorable! I’m very glad that I was able to see them – you have a very, very small chance of seeing one in the wild. Not only are they extremely shy, nocturnal birds, they are also teetering on the brink of extinction. The major threats to the kiwi include stoats, ferrets, cats, and DOGS. One female German Shepherd was responsible for the brutal slaying of five hundred kiwi before being apprehended. Very, very naughty dog. It was an excellent tour, and I was happy to pay the $25 entrance fee for the tour, knowing that it was going to support such a good cause.

Friday night I went to Mitai Maori Village for a Maori cultural show and traditional hangi. It was an interesting experience. Felt a bit bizarre, to be honest – they had a village set up, rowed up and down the little creek in a Maori canoe singing their ancient war songs, and staged a meeting between their chief and ours – they chose 2 men from our groups to act as our chiefs. The songs and dance were amazing, and their explanations of their costumes and weaponry were very interesting. It was just the fake “show” that made me feel uncomfortable. It felt pretty hokey to me – like I was paying to go to the wilds to gape at the painted savages – except they weren’t even genuine savages. Some of the people in the crowd with me actually laughed during the show. I had a better time talking to my Maori bus drivers, hearing them speak their language to each other, and getting a sense of how the Maori live today. But then, maybe it was just me – everyone else there thought the show was fantastic. The dinner was amazing. A hangi is a traditional Maori feast – they heat rocks, dig a hole in the ground, put the rocks on the bottom, fill covered baskets with meat and veggies, place the baskets on top of the rocks, bury the whole lot with earth and let the heat and steam from the rocks slowly cook the food over several hours. I had lamb for the first time (delicious!!), and a whiter, less sweet variety of sweet potato (which they call “kumari” here) that melted in my mouth. Apart from my discomfort at the show, the evening was very enjoyable.
Saturday morning I took a shuttle bus out to see the Lady Knox geyser, the boiling mud pools, and the Wai-o-Tapu geothermal park. A fascinating place. I felt like I was on another planet. I really got a good sense of how active the earth is below us. And how smelly.

Saturday afternoon I wandered down to Lake Rotorua where the shore is littered here and there with steaming vents and mud pools and hot springs. The lake itself has a high sulphur content which gives the water an unusual yellowish-green hue. It was formed from the crater of a volcano thousands of years ago – seems that many of the lakes here had the same beginnings. Nearby Lake Taupo, Australasia’s largest inland lake, was formed from massive volcanic eruptions over the course of many thousands of years – one of which was one of the most violent eruptions in the last 5000 years. Cool stuff! People in the 19th century traveled from all over the world to soak in Rotorua’s hot springs and mud pools for their supposed restorative qualities, helping to ease arthritis and rheumatism, etc. Looking into the mud pools, I felt sick imagining myself sitting in the stinking mix of hot mud and water. I did, however, go for heavenly soak at the Polynesian Spa that evening with a group of people I met whilst relaxing in the Funky Green’s solarium after dinner.

Saturday, Feb 24th, I took a tour bus from Rotorua to Waitomo, where we explored the caves down to the river and the saw glowworms, and then back on the bus up to Auckand. The tour bus was great – it was really cool listening to the driver’s stories and facts, etc, about the towns we passed through. The caves at Waitomo were magical – I just wished that I could have explored them in a smaller group. It was crowded with tourists – I really hate trudging along behind a zillion other people, distracted by their conversations. As we entered the caves, I felt a bit claustrophobic. The ceiling is quite low, so that even I had to bend over. Once you’re in about 10 feet, the cave opens up. The path we followed was carved out of the rock by the river ages ago – today the river is way down several hundred feet at the bottom of the caves. From the ceiling great stalactites hang down, and beneath them rising from the floor are stalagmites. It takes 500 years for them to grow one inch – the 6 footers were pretty marvelous to see, as you can imagine. When the caves were first opened in the 19th century, tourists would break pieces of the stalactites off to take home as souvenirs. How times have changed – you’re strictly forbidden to even touch them today. Deep down in the heart of the caves is an area they call the Cathedral, an immense chamber resembling….well, a cathedral, in shape and size. The acoustics are fantastic (the rock is all limestone, which absorbs the sound rather than echoing it back), and several very famous singers, opera divas, and rock stars have gone down to perform in the Cathedral cavern. It has also been used by locals as a fantastically romantic wedding location. (And I’m sure they pay the proverbial “arm and a leg” to rent the place.) When we reached the river at the bottom of the caves, we boarded boats and were rafted down the current in the pitch black to “Glowworm Grotto” to see the glowworms. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen – it was like lying out in The Farm field at night, watching the stars. I was a little irritated by the chatty woman next to me – “Oh Glenna, look at that, will you?! My, my! Are we all here? Is the group together still??” (I can be such a misanthrope.)

In Auckland I stayed at what had to be the slummiest hostel in town (NOT by choice) – the “Surf N’ Snow“, located in the heart of downtown. Dirty, dingy, dank, dark, disreputable, …. disgusting. I lived through the night, though I barely slept. On my way to shower at 6 am, a Frenchman, drunk or stoned or both, wearing only black “tighty-whiteys” stopped me in the hall, asking for bandaids and disinfectant. He was covered in bruises and cuts….. a bar fight. I escaped that strange situation, showered, checked out, and waited at the Sky City bus stop for 2 hours. Better than staying any longer in slum town.

Sunday morning I rode the bus from Auckland to Whangarei. It was a rainy, dull day. I stayed at “The Mural” in Whangarei. Its downtown, painted bright orange and blue, and only a few steps up the quality ladder from the Surf N’ Snow. The people were much friendlier. I went out to Whangarei Falls after dinner with some people I met at the hostel. Its a pretty spot. One of the guys we were with, Stephen from Germany, decided he’d like to swim in the falls. It was only after he had swum halfway across the pool, out of our shouting range, that a kiwi teen informed us that our friend was swimming in poisonous, algae infected water. Stephen seemed to enjoy himself – and when we told him about the algae after he climbed back out onto the bank, he shrugged and laughed. I’d probably have been more alarmed. Ah well.

Monday morning, February 26th, I rented a car from Absolute Car Rentals in Whangarei for 5 days and took off on a clockwise loop of the far north. I hadn’t really given the whole “driving on the left side of the road” thing much serious though – it was only when I was signing the rental agreement that I began to feel seriously jittery. They rental guy walked me around the car, showed me all the buttons and levers, etc, and then asked, “So, have you driven on the left side before?” uhhhhhhmmm…….. He was cool about it – they must have a tonne of tourists like me all the time. He gave me some pointers, such as: “see, we’ve put a nice yellow sticker on the dash for your that says KEEP LEFT”. Yeah, great, that should be a huge help. (it was, actually!) I pulled out of the lot and discovered to my enormous relief that driving on the left side is not as bizarre as I expected it to be. Didn’t take me long at all to feel completely comfortable with it. It was a lot of fun having my own car – and so much more convenient. I had somewhere to stash my stuff – my back and shoulders were very grateful. Yes, it was a little embarrassing driving around with “RENT ME!! $19 A DAY!!” painted all over my car – people everywhere commented on it. It was the cheapest car they had, and it ran well, so I wasn’t complaining. Funny, though – like mum said, you’d never see that in North America now, after all the trouble with rental car break-ins.

The first day (Feb 26) I drove over to Dargaville and then up the west coast to the Waipoua Forest to see the ancient kauri trees. These trees can be up to 2000 years old, and can reach 60 metres and have a trunk five metres or more in diameter. Its a tree-huggers dreamland. My pictures simply do not show you how immense the trees are. I couldn’t speak when I came around the corner on the path and saw Te Matua Ngahere the ‘Father of the Forest’. You can almost hear them humming with energy. Definitely a highlight of my trip.

From the forest I drove on up to Hokianga Harbour, and the tiny village of Omapere. The harbour has one of the most breathtaking views in NZ – green hills, mountainous sand dunes, and the green-blue Tasman Sea. I wanted to stay there forever. This amazes me about NZ: if Hokianga Harbour were in Florida, there’d be 10 condos on the waterfront, and thousands of oiled bodies sprawled on the beach. But its quiet, practically untouched! My hostel, Globetrekker’s Lodge was very nice, very clean, very peaceful. A short walk across the road and over a kind neighbour’s lawn and you are standing on the gold sand beach looking out on the Tasman Sea. I had a fantastic swim that afternoon. The water was so refreshing after my long car ride and walk through the muggy forest. That evening I sat in the kitchen drinking a couple Speight’s (beer) and chatted with an older couple from Canada. It was such a relaxed, homely place. I’d love to return someday and spend more time there. There is a feijoa tree on the lawn, and every morning there’s a heaping bowl of the delicious fruit free for the taking.

New Zealand Time – March 6th, 12:33 This posting is taking some time to finish. My apologies to those waiting. Anyhoo….

On the way out of Omapere (Tues, Feb 27) I stopped at the small museum. I’ll admit that my real purpose was to use their washroom before heading out into empty farmland, but I found myself staying to look around at the community’s historical collection – a big conch shell found on the beach by Mrs. So-and-so on her morning walk 40 years ago, clippings from the local papers reporting about the great flood of a long past year, a carefully labeled display of an early homesteader’s kitchen utensils. The best exhibit, though, was the room devoted to “Opo“, an unusually friendly dolphin (named after the small town of Opononi, next door to Omapere – much like Loring and Port Loring), who had swum into the harbour one summer in the 1950’s and stayed to make the small community world-famous…for a little while. There were newspaper clippings, letters from locals, memoirs and journal entries, photographs, the lyrics to a song written about the dolphin, and (best yet) a small “theatre” setup where tourists can sit to watch the black & white short made about Opo back in the 50’s. The older lady working in the museum was so sweet and so enthusiastic about her job. I had a great visit with her, asking questions about the harbour and the small community.

I left Hokianga Harbour around noon and headed east. I wasn’t entirely sure where I was headed – Kahoe Farms Hostel, my next destination, wasn’t in a town, and when I asked people for help, they were just as clueless about its location as I was. It was a gorgeous day, though, so I was quite happy just heading out and hoping for the best. The highways are 2-lane, narrow, and curvy. I took my time, sang to myself (I couldn’t tune in a radio station), stopped to admire the beautiful farmland. I stopped for lunch at a side of the road rest stop that was completely overrun by a gang of roosters. They circled my car and crowed at me so that I was too nervous to get out. In fact, I rolled the windows up. Ridiculous, I know. I took pictures – you look at the ferocious glint in their yellow eyes and tell me whether you’d have felt safe opening your door. Not sure if they belonged to anyone. There were no houses nearby. Is there such a thing as wild rooster gangs? Thug poultry? No chickens, either. Only roosters. Very odd.

I did eventually find my hostel (after getting lost only twice). Its a beautiful place. The farm has been run by the same family for 5 generations. One daughter and her husband converted the original farmhouse into a hostel – although its so much more than just that. They treat you like family, and they keep the place immaculate. Polished hardwood floors, bay windows with window seats and 20-odd fluffy cushions, sturdy and spacious bunks with new mattresses and two pillows each, homemade pizzas and pasta (Stefano is Italian), friendly black kitties, hidden rock pools and waterfalls to swim in, and gorgeous empty beaches nearby….. basically, paradise.

Wednesday, Feb 28, I took a bus tour up 90 Mile Beach to Cape Reinga. The bus picked me up at the end of the drive at 9:30 am. Our driver’s name was Rob, it was his first day on the job. He’s Maori – told us great stories about hunting wild pig, and surfing, and Maori legend. He sang us a Maori song. A really fun guy. 90 Mile Beach is actually about 90 kms long. It got its name from a group of farmers back in the day who would walk their cattle up and back down the beach – it took them 3 days to walk the beach, and they figured they walked 30 miles a day – hence, 90 miles. (obviously a bit off in their calculations, but that’s fine.) The beach seems endless. The greenish-blue Tasman Sea crashing on the beach to your left, hard sand ahead and behind, and grassy dunes at the edge of a pine forest to your right. The wind is fierce up there, and the water is dangerous. There are no communities – no brave lone houses even. Its too remote, and the environment is too harsh. Gorgeous, of course. Surfers do brave the wicked tides. Close to the end of the beach, we turned east and drove up a shallow river – more just a wash-out – and headed inland past the enormous sand dunes. (They reminded me of Lawrence of Arabia.) It is imperative that the buses not stop along the river. The river bed is quicksand, and you’ll be stuck in a matter of seconds. We passed a stuck campervan. You can feel yourself sinking just by standing in the river – its easy to imagine how quickly a bus would sink. We stopped at a safe spot and climbed way up the burning hot sand dunes and slid down the steep slopes on toboggans. Hilarious fun….just as long as you keep the front of your toboggan up (sand in the eyes and mouth, nose and ears is very, very unpleasant.) A couple people asked me to take photos of them sandboarding using their cameras – being me, I naturally made an ass of myself. I missed them entirely – on the one guy’s camera, I took pics of complete strangers hoping at first just to pass them off as him. (sneaky, sneaky) Sigh. They trudged back up the dunes for another go – and they asked our bus driver to take photos for them. From the sanddunes, we drove across the narrow peninsula to a incredible beach at the base of a great green mountain to eat our lunch. I was too busy playing in the waves to eat. I had so much fun, crashing and rolling around. I drank a few pints of saltwater. I could have stayed there all day. After lunch we headed north to Cape Reinga – NOT NZ’s most northernly point, but pretty darn close.  (According to the ever helpful Wikipedia, “Cape Reinga is often mistaken as being the northernmost point of the North Island. North Cape’s Surville Cliffs, 30 km east of Cape Reinga, are slightly more northerly.”) What a place! My pictures don’t do it justice. On one side is the Tasman Sea, on the other is the South Pacific. You can see where the two oceans meet just out from the point in a strange line of crashing currents. The old lighthouse is still there. Its no longer manned – it runs by computer commands from Wellington – how very unromantic. The Cape is very sacred to the Maori people. It is where they believe their souls leave Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud (New Zealand) and return to their original home, the mythical Hawaiki. Eating is forbidden at the Cape out of respect for Maori’s beliefs. Standing on the small strip of green and staring out at the ocean all around me, I could easily understand why it became sacred for the Maori – its a powerfully beautiful place. The drive back down 90 Mile Beach was quiet. We were all very tired from the fun and sun. We stopped for dinner at the world-famous “Manganui Fish Shop”. The restaurant sits on stilts in a harbour on the east coast, and their fishing boat, “Stella”, is moored a few feet away. Everything is caught fresh. I had fish and chips. The chips were nothing to write home about. They would have been better with ketchup and vinegar! The fish (bluenose) was excellent!! They served it on wrapping paper, no cutlery – made it fun, but a bit messy. The bus dropped me off at the Kahoe gate around 6:30. I didn’t stay up very late that night – too utterly zonked from the long day.

I was supposed to stay 2 nights at Kahoe Farms, just long enough to take the trip up to Cape Reinga. I ended up staying 3. I had planned to move on to Paihia, but I loved Kahoe and I heard that Paihia was a nest of tourists, so I attempted to cancel my reservation there. The hostel in Paihia wouldn’t let me – 24 hours notice, or they charge your credit card whether you show up or not. When Stefano (Kahoe Farms Hostel owner) heard my reason for leaving, he insisted that I stay on the 3rd night for FREE. He would “brook no argument”. So I stayed.

Thursday, March 1st, I hiked across the Kahoe Farm, up the mountain, past the towers, through the forest (had to mooooove a few cows out of my path), through the gorse (ouch), and through a thick “jungle” (its a really big farm) to their private, natural rock pools. A small stream winds its way through the jungle, and at one spot there are three small waterfalls ending in deep pools that are icy cold and great for diving. The trek back there is tough – I got lost on the way and nearly had a complete breakdown, I was so HOT, the gorse was horribly prickly, I forgot my sunscreen, and the cows, when asked, were of NO help whatsoever – but reaching the rock pools and diving into the water is worth the trouble. It was just me way back there. I stayed for a couple hours, ate lunch, swam, sunbathed. It was such a heavenly day. I’m so thankful to Stefano and Lindsay for allowing me to stay at Kahoe for the 3rd night!

All good things must end, and on Friday, March 2nd, I left Kahoe and made my way down the coast (the scenic route) back to Whangarei. I stayed at “Bunkdown Lodge” Friday night. Not a bad place….but after Kahoe and Globetrekkers, it was a disappointment. Its a big hostel. My room was cramped. I drove out to a beach half an hour north of Whangarei Friday afternoon and had one last swim before heading back to Palmy. It was a nice beach, except for all the loose seaweed swirling about. I returned my car Friday evening – felt a little sad, saying goodbye. Silly me. I bunked that night with 3 German girls. The one across from me on the other top bunk was very friendly. We stayed up talking about our travels, our own countries, and New Zealand till midnight.

Saturday March 3rd I rode the bus back down to Auckland. I had to wait 7 hours there before my bus left for Palmerston North. I wandered around, down to the harbour, up and down the main street. I sat at a coffee shop and drank and entire pot of tea. I checked out a few stores. Read the last chapter of The Dark Tower in Whitcouls bookstore. I found a “Lush” store (same company from which Mrs. Jones bought the bath bar for me out west!) and bought a bar of the most delicious smelling soap. I ate at the international food court again – I ate there on the way up, too. It is so good! It looks like your average mall food court, but its all ethnic food – Korean, Thai, Japanese, Malaysian, Turkish… – and its all prepared fresh for you. Amazing food, and very decently priced. My bus finally left at 8 pm. We drove all night. I didn’t sleep. I arrived back here at 4:50 am, stumbled into our apartment and fell into bed.

It was a fantastic trip. I survived. Greg’s camera came back safe and sound. Now my next task will be to plan our South Island adventure. I’m really excited to go – I’ve heard so much about it, how its even more incredible than the North Island. And I’ll have Greg with me. :-D

I’ll get the pictures posted asap. Right now, I’m going to make myself a cup of tea.

Posted in General Thoughts | Comments (5)

5 Responses to “Well, I’m back.”

  1. Mum Says:

    At last!!! :0) Wonderful read Holls!! What a trip!

  2. Mom Jones Says:

    Holly

    What a wonderful description of your adventure – you are a gifted writer – can’t wait for more.

  3. Amy Says:

    So much fun to read! You’ve re-ignited my travel bug. Good thing Rick and I are currently traveling (way down south to Ithaca NY – how exotic)

    I’ve been working my way through the photos. They’re best enjoyed slowly. And yes, you ARE a nerd. Takes one to know one.

  4. Beth Says:

    So much in such a short time! I can’t wait to read about more of your adventures :)

  5. Aunt Donna Says:

    Hey Holly,

    I feel like I’m getting to know you better through your written words! It’s been just wonderful reading about your adventures, and your exceptional writing skills make me feel like I’m there, Bravo!
    love
    donna