Lots of strange and phenomenal things.

Trip Start Oct 17, 2007
Trip End Oct 16, 2008

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Thursday, April 3, 2008

The ferry crossing from Picton to Wellington was thankfully much calmer than our whale watching excursion, although not quite so exciting.

First stop in Wellington was Te Papa (Our Place) the Museum of New Zealand, packed with information about volcanoes, earthquakes, Maori traditions, European settlers and native flora and fauna. There was an earthquake simulator - a model living room that shakes violently at random, a Maori meeting place known as a marae which is very intricately and beautifully decorated and many artefacts from various iwi (Maori tribes). A fascinating place that could easily occupy most of a day - and it's free!

Billed as "The Greatest Day Walk in the World" the Tongariro Crossing promises a lot... and delivers. We got up at dark 'o'clock to catch the shuttle bus to the start of the crossing in the Mangatepopo car park. As the first hints of daylight crept into the sky we set off towards Soda Springs, up the Mangatepopo Valley. Reasonably sound underfoot and at a gentle slope we were able to look around at the dried lava flows and the various lichens and plants able to grow in this harsh environment.

From Soda Springs a steep climb took us to Mangatepopo Saddle between Mounts Ngauruhoe (2287m high) and Tongariro (1967m high), across the thankfully flat South Crater and then up again to the ridge of Red Crater, where we got our first real 'bad egg smell' from the sulphurous steam. This spot offers some spectacular views of the surrounding area, but then at 1886m above sea level it ought to! We could clearly see the unusual dike formation in the crater, formed by a solidified magma flow being slowly exposed by erosion. A quick stop for some much needed refreshment before beginning the slightly scary descent towards the aptly named Emerald Lakes. The rough, very loose scoria on the steep slope meant we probably slid further than we walked, but we made it safely to the bottom and across Central Crater towards Te Wai-whakaata-o-te-Rangihiroa (Blue Lake).

After skirting the North Crater (a cooled lava lake) the track descended towards Ketetahi Hut (where walkers can stay overnight or shelter if the weather turns bad). Around the hut and on the way down to the Ketetahi Road end of the walk hot acidic streams had to be negotiated and fumaroles emit steam at up to 138 degrees C. The rocks around the streams have been 'cooked' by the water and have been further coloured by mineral deposits. The final part of the 1150m descent to the pick up point is through pine and hardwood forest. The 18.5 kilometre walk took us 6.5 hours, including 3 refreshment breaks and was a fantastic experience. The stark volcanic landscape was unlike anything we had ever seen and the fact that the area is still active added a certain 'wow' factor. All in all it was a very rewarding walk and well worth getting up at such a stupid time in the morning!

Heading towards Rotorua via Taupo and the impressive swirling turquoise and white water of the Huka Falls, we stopped off at a campsite on the edge of Lake Rerewhakaaitu where, having got chatting to one of the other campers, we managed to wangle an invitation to go out fishing on his boat. Once we were safely away from anything hard Paul was told "Oh, by the way, you're driving" and with that he took the wheel. He did a pretty good job too with only minimal intervention from the very laid back skipper and he certainly looked like he was enjoying himself!

Feeling in need of another lung full of sulphur, Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland seemed the obvious choice. The 20 metre high jet of water from the Lady Knox Geyser opened the show in spectacular fashion and set the scene for a day full of, well, thermal wonders! The 3km or so trail through a particularly active and unstable thermal area felt like walking on a different planet. Surrounded by hissing fumaroles and steaming ground we were treated to the multi-coloured Artists Palette and the steamy, effervescent Champagne Pool. The boiling black mud of the Devil's Ink Pots was quite menacing and the overpowering sulphur stench from the yellow Sulphur Cave matched the mood perfectly.

There were many brightly coloured pools, including the greeny yellow Devil's Bath and several easily visible craters, the latest formed in 1968, where the ground has been eroded from below by acidic steam and then collapsed. A short distance away the violently boiling, mesmerising Mud Pool kept us entertained for a short while more.

We saw a kiwi in the nocturnal house at Rainbow Springs - SO COOL! Then we went on to the Wingspan Centre to see rescued New Zealand Falcons, Australasian Harriers and Morepork (NZ native owls) in their aviaries. The handlers put on an awesome flying display with two of the falcons, Mojo and Ozzy, swooping on a lure and generally showing off their skills. Ozzy, the older and cheekier of the birds, decided to use Julie's arm and Pauls head as a perch and look out post. Didn't expect to get THAT close! The handlers were very friendly and informative and they answered loads of questions from the crowd about the birds, their training and the successful breeding and release programs run by the centre in an attempt to save the seriously endangered species.

Another silly early start to get to the most easterly point of NZ and climb 728 steps to the site of the East Cape Lighthouse, in time for sunrise. Despite a slightly cloudy horizon we were among the first people in the whole world to see the sun on Easter Sunday 2008 - if we'd been much further East it would have been Saturday!

From here we headed back inland and up the Coromandel Peninsula to Whitianga where every day around low tide a small area of seemingly ordinary beach becomes the place to be. Dozens of people, spades in hand, descend upon the appropriately titles Hot Water Beach to experience the unusual natural phenomenon. The basic idea is to dig a hole in the sand, wait for it to be filled by the hot springs beneath, then wallow to your heart's content in the warm (sometimes too warm) water. Those nearest the sea get a regular cooling off as the waves wash into their makeshift baths. It is a very odd feeling to be standing knee deep in sea water and yet have the sand under your feet almost too hot to touch. You have to feel it to believe it!

Continuing the hot water theme, our campsite in Parakai, just North of Auckland had an aquatic park adjacent and we spent a lovely afternoon swimming, lounging in the warmest swimming pool ever (39 degrees C) and braving the reasonably big hydroslide several times over. Even Julie almost enjoyed the ride after being dragged up and pushed down it a couple of times!

Further North the culturally and historically significant town of Waitangi offers the chance to get into some real NZ history. On 6th February 1840 Queen Victoria`s representative in NZ, William Hobson and 43 Maori chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi - modern NZ`s founding document. Basically the Treaty handed Aotearoa`s sovereignty to Britain while extending the rights and protection enjoyed by British citizens to the Maori people.

As part of our visit we were given a copy of the Treaty in English and the Maori translation. We also took a guided tour of the Treaty grounds which house the Ngatokimatawhaorua, the world`s largest waka (war canoe) which is 35 metres long, weighs 12 tons dry and 18 in water, took over 2 years to build and utilised wood from 3 giant kauri trees.

In the grounds there was also a flagstaff marking the site of the actual signing, from which fly the modern NZ flag, the Union Jack and the original Flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand which is still recognised as a national flag and used by some groups to this day.

The impressively decorated Whare Runanga (Maori meeting house) is unique because rather than being a tribal meeting house it is intended for use by all tribes and contains carvings, reed panels and painted patterns depicting ancestors from many tribes. It is also very rare to be allowed to photograph inside the marae but because this one is not used to hold the deceased before burial it is permitted. It is a very spiritual place and the decoration is just magnificent.

Treaty House was originally the home of the official British Resident James Busby, employed to attempt to maintain law and order amongst the European settlers in the area. It is the 4th oldest house in NZ and has been restored and turned into a small but informative museum.

To round off our visit we took in a short song and dance show put on by a small group of Maori performers. It was great fun, they even had the audience joining in at one point and the traditional haka performed at the end was very powerful. Some of the grotesque faces pulled by the warrior were really quite intimidating!

At almost the northern most tip of NZ lies Cape Reinga, where it is actually possible to see the point where the Tasman sea and the Pacific ocean meet. On the surface the opposing waves, travelling towards each other, crash together causing a foaming and swirling clearly visable from the shore.

A short distance south 90 Mile Beach (actually 64 miles long) runs down the west coast. It is possible (though not highly recommended) to drive its length but many vehicles get bogged in and are lost to the sea. Oddly enough it is a recognised part of the state highway system and has signs stating the speed limit as 100kph. Much more easily accessible are the giant sand dunes of Te Paki, where after an exhausting hike across the sand and up to the highest point we could see (climbing sand is hard work!) we foolishly decided that a spot of sand tobogganing would be a fun way to recover. It was hilarious - we often ended up going sideways or shooting off the front of the board but we managed not to break anything (including the bed base we borrowed from the van) and lived to tell the tale.

On our way South back to Auckland we stopped off at the Kawiti glowworm caves in Wiaomio and had a peak at the thousands of tiny luminescent lavae spread across the roof of the cave like a galaxy of stars. Company policy to protect the glowworms prohibts photography but they really are a quite amazing sight.

Finally in Auckland we battled our way through the traffic and took our trusty steed back to the camper depot having covered almost 6000km (3700 miles) in 24 days, averaging 250 km (160 miles) a day! We spent a couple of days reintegrating ourselves back into society and reflecting of the amazing month we had just spent in New Zealand.
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