In mid-September 2003, I decided to go on a vacation to New Zealand and Australia. I had two weeks of vacation days that I had to use up by the end of 2003, I had a cousin who had been teaching in New Zealand for a year, and was shortly to return, I had another cousin who was just about to leave on an extended trip to south-east Asia and Australia, I'd been wanting to visit New Zealand for several years already, I hadn't had a significant vacation since starting to work at Nortel in June 2000, and I was getting increasingly restless. Therein lies enough reasons for anybody. Through a combination of research, whim and luck I decided on a basic itinerary of two weeks on the North Island of New Zealand, one week in Tasmania and one week on the Australian mainland. After consulting with various parties, buying plane tickets and researching further, I came up with my planned itinerary. For a laugh, you may want to compare the New Zealand parts of that to my actual itinerary. Well, it's not like there's a lot of detail in it anyway.
On the morning of December 5th 2003, I was on my way. Mom & Dad came up the night before to drive me to the airport and see me off, which was nice. All three flights were uneventful, and I got about eight hours of sleep on the final (L.A. to Auckland) leg, so I arrived in good shape and ready to roll at 6am on December 7th. I called Apex for a shuttle from the airport, and went to pick up my car. All went well, and I was shortly on the road. Of course I was on the wrong side of the road, but I noticed after a few seconds, and corrected the situation. Then I turned a corner, and repeated myself. Having learned my lesson twice, I promptly turned another corner and forgot it. Luckily I had foreseen such possibilities, and was just test-driving around the little commercial/industrial park where Apex is located. The third time was the charm, and I managed to stay on the left hand side of the road for the next two weeks.
Just to force the issue though, I decided that driving around in the rain, in the central downtown of the largest city in the country would be a good way to spend the next couple of hours. Foolhardy? Perhaps. Daring? Somewhat. Did it work? Indubitably. While I had a couple of near misses during my morning escapades, in the subsequent two weeks I had nary a problem. While I wasn't driving, I spent the morning at One Tree Hill, where I had my first food in New Zealand, consisting of vanilla ice cream. I also climbed up to the top and took a bunch of pictures of the surrounding city and some features of the hill. I even enhanced one particular feature before taking the picture. Having largely behaved itself while I was walking around, the rain started up again while I was getting my ice cream, so I ate it in the car and decided to head for Mount Eden, in the hope that it would stop again shortly. It did, and I got several pictures of and from Mount Eden. Next stop was a general walking tour of the main downtown drag, but first I had to find a place to park. Eventually I realised that this was much easier than I'd been thinking, since it was a Sunday, and many of the metered spots I had been avoiding didn't actually need any money. A few hours later I had a feel for the place, and a satisfied belly, so I decided to move on. After emailing Mom & Dad (at $2/hour Auckland had the best Internet Cafe rates until Sydney) I headed off to find Orewa and the Puriri Park Holiday Complex.
I arrived in Orewa after the Information Centre had closed, but there was a small map in a brochure in the window that happened to have the relevant street on it, so I kinda got lucky there. Barring that however, I'm sure it would've been easy to find a friendly and knowledgable local denizen to point the way. Anyway, I arrived at Puriri Park and was directed to the cabin Trista had booked. I found Trista and Joel tired and lazy and watching TV. I joined them, and we talked and watched TV and had dinner. Sometime during the evening I did a more serious inspection of the mosquito repellent spill that had happened in my backpack during the flight, and discovered that it had dissolved a small patch of the pack's inner waterproof coating. It was restricted to the upper compartment, but it also damaged the lens of my swimming mask - luckily that was the only thing that was exposed and susceptible. So, having successfully completed my first day overseas with no major mishaps, I enjoyed the sleep of the innocent.
The next morning (the 8th) I got up early and did a walk in the Alice Eaves Nature Reserve adjoining Puriri Park. I saw my first Kauri tree there, but as yet had no idea of its significance, and therefore no real appreciation of it. On my return Trista and Joel asked if I'd seen one, and mentioned that they had yet to see one, ever. Not that they're hard to find, you just have to go to one of the few places they still grow. We then had a nice leisurely breakfast, packed up, and headed for Paihia.
To a North American city driver (or at least this one), the Northland of New Zealand (all points north of Auckland) is an exercise in patience and bewilderment, punctuated by moments of awe. There is one main road, it has two lanes (one in each direction), and there are thousands of hills. East of Calgary we'd call them mountains. There are passing lanes at frequent intervals, but they're short, uphill, and usually on a tight inside corner. The implications of this are left as an exercise to the reader... Ok, no they're not. Suppose you want to pass the car you've been trailing for the last 10 minutes: put the gas pedal on the floor, move into the inside lane and aim for the cars coming down the hill towards you, (you know, the ones you can't see until half a second before you pass each other within a couple feet, going 80 km/hour). Now, keep this up for about 30 seconds, because the lane you're in will end at the top of the hill. At the top of the hill however, (and at numerous other points for that matter) you get some pretty spectacular views. If you enjoy mountain scenery, I recommend bringing a driver who doesn't, because it's very important to pay attention to the road.
It rained on and off for pretty much the whole day, but we were undeterred. We made it to Paihia, and checked in at Smith's Holiday Park in the mid-afternoon. We pitched our tents, made inquiries at the office, and decided to walk in to Paihia to check out the scene. Paihia is basically an ocean-side tourist town, but it doesn't go overboard, and is pretty nice in general. Based on a visit to the information centre, we made tentative plans for the next day, then bought some groceries and headed back to the campsite.
The next morning (the 9th) we drove up to the Waitangi Treaty Area, which is where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, which established British sovereignty over New Zealand. There are various neat things there, including a couple of Maori wakas that were built in commemoration, the original British Resident's house, and a Maori marae. After a light meal at the cafe in the treaty area, we spent the afternoon on the Haruru Falls Walk, which was a couple of hours each way, and included some interesting features. It also included my first time in a mangrove area, which was pretty neat. After another stop in Paihia for groceries and decision-making, we head back to the campsite.
During our second morning (the 10th) at Smith's, I got my first unfettered glimpse of the sun since the early morning of my arrival in New Zealand. It didn't last. Ignoring the rain (which one must do in general in New Zealand), we packed up, and headed into Paihia for the fairly short (one hour each way) Opua Forest Walk. Having completed this, Trista and Joel were planning on heading back south, since they wanted some extra time to organise and pack for their trip home. I managed to delay their plans for about an hour by locking my keys in my trunk, but a couple of calls to AA were all it took to get me (and them) back on our respective tracks. My track of course involved waiting in Paihia for the AA guy to arrive, but then had me heading for Cape Reinga.
The drive was long, but I had an ice cream break at Cooper's Beach, just after I happened upon the largely unnoted Rangikapiti pa overlooking Doubtless Bay. The rest of the drive was interesting, especially once I got onto the twisty and hilly gravel road through the National Reserve area. I'm sure it would be a nicer drive without the thick fog I shared most of it with. Of course the fog remained on the cape itself, but it was still well worth the trip. The best part though, was the process of getting a couple of pictures. Going northish from the lighthouse plateau, there's a 1 metre wide steep path, with deadly drops on either side, but at the end is an excellent vantage point for shots of the place where the Pacific Ocean meets the Tasman Sea, and the beach below the cape. Some people might have been put off by the warning signs at the top of the path, or the coastal winds blowing across it, or the wet rocks it consisted of, but I will stop at nothing to enhance your viewing pleasure.
Cars will also stop at nothing. That is to say, when there is nothing in their gas tanks, they will stop. Luckily I never confirmed that behaviour, but I came close. The "last stop" BP station on the road to Cape Reinga charged $1.28/litre, but that is the price of folly. With sufficient resources in time and petrol in hand, I was able to fully enjoy the drive back south. Apparently one can take bus trips down Ninety Mile Beach (ie. actually on the beach), or even drive it yourself if you're so inclined, but I stuck to the road, which allowed me to help out a couple of guys hitchhiking on their way back to their campsite, which was just a couple of kilometres down the road. They had bought ice cream you see, and wanted to get it back to their (female) companions before it melted. Having lent my support to their cause, I continued on my merry way. I decided to stay in Ahipara that night, and managed to find Pinetree Lodge Motor Camp, even though I had no address, and it had changed its name to Ahipara Motor Camp. Ahipara isn't really a big place though, and the new sign had a small "formerly known as" line at the bottom. After pitching my tent I walked onto Ninety Mile Beach, and waded into the Tasman Sea in the final dying light of the day. While making and eating dinner that evening, I met and talked a bit with a German couple who were on sabbatical, and an English couple who had recently come from South America on a round-the-world trip. The general overcast and wetness continued, but I was learning to deal with it, and read the weather somewhat.
The next morning (the 11th) I went for a little swim in the Tasman Sea, which was great fun. I encountered a little dog while walking there, but he didn't dare show his face on my walk back. The weather started to clear somewhat that morning, and I was able to get a more decent shot of Ninety Mile Beach from a good vantage point at the southern tip. My "schedule" didn't allow for dallying however, so I continued my journey south. Somewhere between Broadwood and Kohukohu, I picked up a hitchhiker. She was a nice English girl who was participating in the WWOOF program, and had just left the farm she'd been working at for the last few weeks. She was headed for Waipoua forest, which was one of my planned destinations for the day, so that all worked out well. I'm sure she told me, but I don't remember her name. The ferry ride across Hokianga harbour from Kohukohu to Rawene was quite beautiful, but it was nothing compared to the views of and from the harbour entrance. The improving weather was certainly welcome, and no doubt enhanced my perceptions, but I think the pictures speak for themselves. We stopped at a lookout area on the south side of the harbour entrance, and while I was bounding around on the little paths, my hitchhiker companion met a fellow Brit, and was chatting away with her when I returned. We left a few minutes later, and shortly hit Waipoua Forest. We went to the visitor centre, she checked in to the campground, I checked for a reasonably short forest walk to take, and we parted ways.
I decided on the Lookout Track, which was about an hour each way, with an old forest ranger's tower (the lookout) at the other end. Naturally the weather decided this would be a good time to change, so I had a wet and muddy walk up a hill over slippery tree roots for an hour, then 15 minutes looking around at the top, then another hour of the same, but downhill, and wetter. Did I mention that it would have been a five minute drive to exactly the same spot? Don't ask, I don't know either. In any case, after a nice rinse in the stream, I headed off again. I made it to Dargaville, hoping to pick up some food, but was a bit late. I decided to backtrack a few kilometres to Baylys Beach, and checked into Baylys Beach Holiday Park. I walked down to the beach in the evening, and made plans with myself to drive down in the morning. The rain that had stopped as I was driving into the campground didn't start back up again until I was walking back up to the campground.
Although the evening was wet, the next morning (the 12th) was finally a fairly dry one, and all went according to plan. I wanted to make it to Raglan that night, which would be about eight hours of driving, so I got up early, drove out onto the beach, (cause apparently that's what you do) and took a couple pictures, then headed off. I stopped in Dargaville for an email check and website update, then continued on to the Kauri museum in Matakohe. It was quite well done, and gave me a good appreciation of the real significance of the kauri tree in New Zealand. I managed to get a good shot of the beach at Orewa (I hadn't taken any at all my first time there) from a lookout stand beside the highway, had a slow time getting through Auckland (it being Friday afternoon and all that), but made good time between Auckland and Hamilton. It seems they actually can build straight, flat roads in New Zealand, they just don't have very many places to put them. The driving took its toll though, and I stopped at the Huntly Information Centre for a bit of a break to try to stave off a headache. That didn't work, so by the time I hit Raglan it was in fine form. I got fish & chips for dinner, then checked into Raglan Kopua Holiday Park, pitched my tent, and used it for an hour. Feeling better, I took a little drive along the coast to see the famous beaches they have. That night I decided I would skip the surfing thing, and go for the Waitomo Adventures Ultimate Lost World 7 Hour Epic the next morning (the 13th).
The Lost World tour left at 10:30, and I arrived at 10:40. I blame a combination of twisty, hilly roads, a gutless wonder of a car, and an inexcusable lack of forseeing them both. There were of course several other options available at later times in the day, but by then I had set my heart on the big one. Undissuaded, I checked in to the Waitomo Top 10 Holiday Park and pitched my tent. Then I booked the Lost World tour for the next day, and headed back to Raglan. On arrival I booked a surfing lesson for 4:00, and spent the intervening few hours exploring in and around Raglan. I had another look at the beaches, had a bite or so to eat, bought a pair of Billabong sandals, went for a swim in the river/harbour, and generally had a fun time in the sun. As advertised, Raglan is completely centred around surfing. If you're a surfer in New Zealand, Raglan is made for you. My afternoon lesson however, made it clear that Raglan is not made for me. I am quite certain that after a week or so of practice I would be a competent surfer, but I am just as certainly not a natural at it. I did get up on the board many times, but I was out for about two and a half hours, and only "caught" three waves. I think it might be easier with slightly bigger waves, but whatever. My surfing adventure over, I headed back to Waitomo, vowing that there would be a next time.
Caving however, is another story altogether.
If I had to pick a single highlight of my trip, the Waitomo Adventures Ultimate Lost World 7 hour Epic would be it. Unfortunately it was raining that morning (the 14th), and I wasn't planning on staying, so I had to pack my tent wet. Annoying, but no big deal. As I mentioned, the tour starts at 10:30 am at the office. Here I met my five fellow adventurers, and our guides Jimmy and Liam. Liam drove us out to a barn in a minibus, where we changed into a wetsuit and rubber boots, then continued on in the minibus to a shed with a shelter attached, where Jimmy and Liam put on their wetsuits, and we were outfitted with some basic climbing gear (a seat harness, an abseil rack, two short safety ropes with carabiners, and a helmet with a light). Then we walked a short distance to a large hole in the ground. At this point, having gotten a feel for the personalities in the group, I took the lead (behind Liam when appropriate), and kept it for most of the trip. Not that I was obnoxious about it or anything, I just decided to discard my shyness, and enjoy myself as much as possible without worrying about making an ass of myself. I've often thought recently that this would be a fun approach to life, and the other side of the world seemed a good place to test that theory.
Shortly before the hole, we clipped on to a rope, making it safe to lean over the edge to look 80 metres straight down into the cave. Apparently this is where the cave was discovered, but it's not where we entered. Another short walk later, much of it while clipped onto ropes, we walked backwards down a slippery ladder, ending up on a metal platform suspended over another large hole in the ground. In a coordinated fashion, four of us plus Liam sat on a large metal bar hanging beside the platform, everybody got strapped in and hooked up and carefully instructed, and then we just slipped off the bar. That left 100 metres of air between us and the ground. Well, there was a rope there too, so I followed the instructions, and slowly slid down it. I should also mention that we were all attached to a "spider" doohickey on Liam's rope, which would trip and stop everyone if anyone got too far away from it (by falling, for instance). Anyway, a few minutes later (that's right, a few minutes of sliding down a rope - we had no mishaps, it just turns out that 100 metres is a long way down) we were all on solid ground again, everyone unhooked, and Liam did his rounds (shakes your hand, and with an enormous grin, welcomes you the "The Lost World".
The entrance cave really is quite a thing to see, and the pictures don't do it justice. It's deep, with a high ceiling, and there are two holes to the surface (the 80 metre one we saw first, and the 100 metre one we entered later). The combination of a light mist throughout, moss growing on most surfaces, various insects flitting around near the surface, and light streaming in from one or both of the holes makes for a very beautiful effect, and we were left to look around and say hello to the eel in the stream while the other three made their way down. Once everybody was at the same altitude, we were called together for a very nice lunch of coffee, sandwiches and fruit.
Most of the next four hours were kind of a blur. We started by climbing a couple dozen meters to where the cave shrinks to a more reasonable size, then spent about half an hour clambering over rocks and jumping over small chasms, ending up in another largish cavern, with another hole to the surface. Liam called this "Cow Hole" because several years ago a cow had fallen into it, which made the cow very dead, and the eels very happy. I think it was at this point that the "Spectacular Lost World" tour left the cave (they had come down while we were eating lunch, and followed a slightly different route), and things began to get rather wet.
The stream that runs through the cave isn't really "large", but it is certainly unavoidable. At least half of the rest of the trip is spent at least hip deep in it, and a few points require almost complete submersion, not to mention the waterfalls that have to be navigated upstream. The best of these was about 5 metres high, and we had to "chimney" up in front of it. That is, assuming we could fight the neck-high current at the bottom of the fall to actually get into the chimney. Then at the top, if we so chose (which we all did), we could jump back down into the pool we'd just climbed out of. Actually, not all of us did the jump, because two of us didn't do the climb. There was a couple (dunno if they were married, but I think so) with us, and the female member at least was not really at the same level of fitness or daring that the rest of us were. She was ok though - her partner and the guides helped her as necessary, there were alternate routes for the hardest bits, and I'm fairly certain she enjoyed the trip overall, so all went well. Unfortunately they also missed out on an even better jump, into unknown (to non-guides) waters at the end of a 1x1 metre crawling tunnel.
Of course there are (relatively) dry parts as well, and tight parts, and slippery parts, and jumping parts, and pulling parts, and then near the end, another awesome view, this time in a glowworm cave. Once everybody was gathered, settled down lying on the rocks, and all the lights were off, I think we were just staring for a good 20 minutes. Amazing stuff.
Anyway, other highlights included: navigating in total darkness (first one who turns their light on pays the beer tax), though I had to cheat by closing my eyes, because certain parties weren't really willing to play the game; ducking behind a small waterfall; getting well ahead of everyone and floating down the stream on my back; pulling myself along a wall against the current with no ground to work with (at least, not that I could reach while still breathing air); and in general, being asked to slow down, wait a minute, or come back to the group. Well, that wasn't as much fun, but the process of getting to that point was.
I suppose I've gone on about it long enough though. Shortly after the glowworm cave, we emerged into the daylight and made our way back to the office, where Liam and Jimmy made us all a large and hearty dinner, and we chatted and reminisced and stuff. It cost around $350, and it was worth it.
As I said though, I wasn't planning on staying. Mostly due to the temporary cancellation of the digital-film-delivery-by-pigeon system, (the local hawks are quite territorial around breeding season), I got away rather later than I'd hoped, but I was aiming to do the Tongariro Crossing the next day, so I wanted to make National Park that night. When I got there it was dark, cold and raining. As Raglan is to surfers, National Park is to skiers, so when I asked for a room at a backpackers, the proprietor was slightly surprised. After hearing about my plan to do the crossing the next day, she advised against it, based on the weather, but I still needed a place to sleep. The place appeared to be completely empty except for me, and I had a four bunk room to myself, so I set up my tent inside overnight to dry.
I woke up in good time the next morning (the 15th), packed up and headed in to Whakapapa village to check it out. The weather forecasts there confirmed my previous advice, and I was too late to catch either of the buses to Mangatepopo hut anyway; however, the forecast for Thursday and Friday were good, and I was nothing if not flexible. Wellington called, and who was I to turn it down?
It wasn't as long as the drive from Dargaville to Raglan, but it still took several hours. I took it a bit easier though, and stopped for a little walk in Wanganui on the way. I also noted on the way by that, as advertised, Fly-By-Wire was still closed, unfortunately. After some indecision, I decided to stay at the Hutt Top 10 Holiday Park, and checked in and pitched my tent in the early afternoon before heading in to the city (Upper and Lower Hutt are suburbs straddling the Hutt river, across the harbour from Wellington). I drove around the downtown a little bit, getting a feel for the streets and the layout, then parked and walked around a bit. As suggested by Trista & Joel, I parked at Te Papa (the National Museum - "Te Papa" means "Our Place" in Maori), since it's pretty central, and has an $8/day maximum charge. I discovered that night that if you leave late enough, it has a $0/day charge. Sweet! I found the cave troll statue in Civic Square by accident while just wandering, then decided to specifically seek out the Embassy theatre. (For those of you who've been in a cave yourselves for the last few years, the cave troll was featured in The Fellowship of the Ring, the Embassy theatre is the "spiritual home" of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, where the world premieres were shown, and New Zealand in general (and Wellington in particular) is crazy about the whole thing.) As luck would have it, I found it at 6:30 pm - just in time to see the last scheduled public showing of the extended version of The Two Towers. Upon its completion, satisfied with my evening, I went back to the campsite.
After a fairly chilly night, I did laundry for the first time that morning (the 16th), then booked into the campsite for another night, and headed back into Wellington for the afternoon. My first stop was at the Embassy to get a ticket for the 9:30 am showing of The Return of the King on opening day, then I went for another aimless walk around Wellington for the afternoon. I ended up at the Wellington Brewery Bar & Restaurant, had an excellent local beer (Lion Brown) with fish & chips, which I think is the best I've ever had. If you're ever on the Wellington waterfront of an evening, I highly recommend it. Feeling nicely refreshed and relaxed, I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening in Te Papa, until it closed. After a little more wandering around downtown, I went back to the campsite for sleep.
After another chilly night, I spent the morning (the 17th) and the early afternoon at the Wellington Zoo, which was nice. Not very big, but well laid out, with appropriate natural enclosures. Highlights were the kiwi birds (there were two, I saw one) in the nocturnal house, a pair of Sumatran tigers, and numerous monkey and great ape species. The rest of the day I dedicated to getting the pictures I wanted of Wellington, including a place Joel had assured me couldn't exist (that's at the corner of Willis and Bond streets, and on page 426 of the New Zealand Lonely Planet guide, for those keeping score at home). The weather that day was easily the best I'd yet had, as I basically didn't see a cloud in the sky all day, after the early morning. I had dinner at Kopi (apparently the city's best Malaysian restaurant), but I don't remember what it was. A mixture of seafoods in various states of identifiability in a spicy soup-type deal. Tasty, messy, clears out the sinuses, you get the idea. After dinner I went out for a few more pictures, then headed in to finish off my survey of Te Papa (and get some pictures of the model of Barad-Dur they had on display). I went out walking again after it closed, before heading back to the campsite for the night.
Once again, the night was pretty chilly, but since I was leaving Wellington that day (the 18th), I had to get up and pack in time to make it to the 9:30 showing of The Return of the King. So I did that, then got my last few days organised. I planned on doing the Tongariro Crossing the next day (Friday), so I booked an early hangi feast at Tamaki Village (Rotorua) for Saturday, and confirmed my Auckland International YHA booking for that night, so I could catch my 9:00 am flight to Sydney, so I could catch my 3:30 pm flight to Hobart, so I could catch my 9:15 am bus to Lake St. Clair, so I could finish the Overland Track in time to catch my 10:45 bus back to Hobart, so I could catch my 6:35 pm flight back to Sydney. Scheduling at this point was fairly important. Anyway, with the plan in place, its execution was imminent! I drove up Mount Victoria for some final shots of Wellington, then headed back up to Tongariro, taking the more inland route of highway 1 instead of following the coast to Wanganui and heading up highway 4. As I'd hoped, this turned out to be a slightly better route, speed-wise. I arrived at Whakapapa village to find Whakapapa Holiday Park closed and full, so I did my first (and only) night in a DOC campsite. These consist of a tap with cold water, an outhouse, various unmarked spots, and an honour box for payment. Quite serviceable in a pinch or on a budget.
Rising not quite early enough on one last chilly morning (the 19th), I skipped breakfast and packed in a hurry, so that I could make the bus to Mangatepopo. In my hurry, I remembered to bring enough granola bars, I remembered my hat, I remembered my sunscreen, I even remembered my sunglasses at the last minute. What I forgot was to change into my walking socks. "Oh well," says I, "how much difference can socks really make? I'm a rugged explorer! I'm a man!" Heh heh heh... Anyway, the Tongariro Crossing is another one of the things in New Zealand about which I encourage you to believe the hype, which I hope my pictures attest to. I lucked into an excellent day for it, with hardly a cloud in the sky for miles around. It doesn't really show well in the picture, but from the Saddle at the top of the Devil's Staircase, I could clearly see Mount Taranaki, almost 150 kilometres to the west. Spectacular I tell you, simply spectacular. The colours on the mountains and craters and lakes were also more vibrant than I imagine they otherwise would have been. See what flexibility gets you? There's really not much to say about the crossing that the the pictures don't say much more eloquently, so I'll just let them speak for themselves. What I will say however, is that socks really make a difference. By the end of the day I had large raw spots on the back of both heels. Under ordinary circumstances: annoying but no big deal. Under my circumstances: three days away from an 80 km walk. Doh!
After coming off the crossing (which I did in 5:45 by the way - not especially fast, but well ahead of the pack), I continued my journey north. I didn't really decide until I got there, but I skipped Taupo, and headed straight for Rotorua. In retrospect it probably would have been better to stay in Taupo and do the morning Rock 'n' Ropes session, then head up to Rotorua, but my heels weren't really feeling like they'd enjoy it, and I wanted to give them a chance to heal as much as possible before their next big test. I've done a ropes course before though, so it's all good. I arrived at Rotorua Top 10 Holiday Park after the office closed, but they had two tent sites left, so I took one and payed in the morning (the 20th), which is standard and accepted practice in such situations. They had nice shower facilities, which was especially good after a hot day walking across active volcanoes. Of course the showers can't do anything about the stink of sulphur, because Rotorua has it too, only it's everywhere, and it's much, much worse.
I spent much of the next day (the 20th) walking around Rotorua, waiting for the hangi feast. My first mission however was to buy some moleskin, so I found a drugstore ASAP. With my feet taken care of, I checked into more details about the local attractions at the information centre, and decided to head out to the Agrodome. I was somewhat dissappointed with the agricultural aspects, but that wasn't really what I was there for. I was there to perform amazing daredevil feats! So, I popped over to the "extreme" area, and did my first ever bungy jump. It was only a small one, from a crane platform that you're lifted up on, but still, a platform 43 metres off the ground is not something one normally jumps from, and I dare say it takes a certain intestinal fortitude to actually do so. With my intestines well fortified, I moved on to my other daredevil feat for the afternoon - zorbing! The Jackie Chan fans among you may have seen zorbing in First Strike, which is where I first saw it. I did a wet zorb, for which you're not strapped in, and a bucket of cold water is thrown in the ball to roll down the hill with you. It's very, very fun. I can't remember where I read it (probably on a local brochure that I later discarded), but the first challenge for "real" zorbanauts is to stay upright, running down the hill in a wet zorb. Well I didn't quite make it, but once I fell I had great fun bouncing around inside the ball. To quote the fellow who let me out at the bottom, who sees dozens of zorbs daily, "You almost made it mate! [...] That was spectacular!" Apparently there are no zorb franchises in North America yet, though there are many in Europe, Asia, and even South America. I don't get it. As fun as it was though, and as safe as it seems, it turns out I got my only significant injury from the whole trip while zorbing. I don't know when exactly it happened, but at some point in my bouncing around I twisted my right knee. It's certainly not debilitating (I haven't told anybody and nobody's noticed, even during my bi-weekly kick-boxing class), and it's slowly but surely getting better.
So, having completed my amazing daredevil feats, I went back to Rotorua to see what else there was to do while I waited. On the drive back, I happened upon Kuirau Park, which is basically a park in the middle of the city with a lot of geothermal activity. In fact Rotorua is surrounded by hot springs and steaming lakes and boiling mud and geysers and the like, and Kuirau Park happens to be a place where you can see some of it for free. For reasons that I don't really recall, and I'm not sure were clear even at the time, I wasn't really into paying for access to any of the numerous "thermal areas" surrounding the city. Since most of them are based on bathing or swimming in hot springs, maybe I was put off by the claims of "healing powers" and such. After all, I'm a man! Yeah. Well, maybe next time. In the meantime, Kuirau park was pretty neat, though the over-enthusiastic local fellow accosting strangers with stories about the park, and eagerly showing them around was a little odd. I managed to pass him off on an unsuspecting family of tourists. Hopefully God will forgive me, someday.
After Kuirau Park, I had nothing else to do (and not enough time to really do much of anything anyway) until the Tamaki Village hangi feast, so I just walked around and hung out in Rotorua for an hour or so. I thought I'd be accustomed to the smell after a day in it, but I wasn't. Perhaps eventually one would be, but it comes in waves. Somewhat reminiscent of Sudbury actually, although that was sulphur dioxide, and rather more obnoxious when a real wave hit. Tamaki Village and the hangi feast was kind of interesting, but way more touristy than I'd been originally thinking, and still hoping until a few minutes into the bus ride. The bus driver was too much of a performer, and it was all very much performances and set-pieces. It had an air of "selling out". I'm not sure if that impression is accurate or even fair, but that's what it felt like to me. It was ok though, and did give some more background and history on the Maori people and culture. The food was pretty good too. Apparently it was cooked in the traditional "hangi" way, which involves heating rocks in a fire at the bottom of a pit, putting the food on top, then burying the whole business for a few hours. Of course this was all done before we got there, and the final result was laid out in front of us in a catered buffet style. Of course I stuffed myself silly. (Hey, I was starting an 80 km walk in two days, and it was a buffet.)
Immediately on arriving back in Rotorua I headed for Auckland, and arrived at Auckland International YHA around 11:00. The guy at the desk was not especially pleasant, but maybe he was having a bad day or something. Anyway, I got a bed, and I was only there for about eight hours. Got up at 6:00 the next morning (the 21st), and was away by 7:00. Dropped the car off at Apex, got shuttled to the airport, and spent the next twelve hours getting to Hobart.
On arrival at Montgomery's YHA, I had two problems to solve. I had no food, (Tasmania, like New Zealand, has very strict quarantine rules, and while in retrospect I'm fairly certain I could've gotten through with the necessities, I wasn't sure at the time) and no fuel for my camp stove (airlines aren't fond of transporting explosives). I had seen a grocery store on the bus from the airport, and inquiries at the front desk confirmed its location and that it would still be open, so I headed there first, and stocked up on muesli bars and noodle-based "meals". Of course those noodles would need to be cooked... Back at the hostel I ruthlessly discarded anything I could that I hadn't already ruthlessly discarded in Auckland, further separated out anything I wouldn't need on the trail, and organised everything else into my pack. While this was going on, a roommate came in, and we discovered we shared a country of origin! He was from Edmonton, was going to school in Melbourne for a year, and was travelling a bit during the Christmas break. I think his name was Rob. We chatted a bit, then headed out to get a bit of food (for dinner), and to see if we could find some fuel (my remaining mission had come up in conversation). The food part worked, but the fuel part did not. I guess I haven't made the urgency of this problem clear: I had to catch a bus at 9:00 the next morning, and it would be dropping me off inside a national park. While it was within the realm of possibility that there would be fuel canisters available at the visitor's centre, it was very unlikely. Of course like most modern "western" cities, most stores in Hobart, and in particular all the camp equipment stores, open at 9:00, leaving me exactly zero minutes to get to the bus station. Feasible, if the bus station is close to a camp equipment store, and they're loose with their schedule. I had three different addresses for the bus station, none of them close together. What a pickle! And yet I returned to write this account, so I must have survived! How did I do it? Read on...
First I bid goodnight to Rob, then I went bed. I woke up at 6:30 the next morning (the 22nd), in order to maximize my fuel searching opportunities. My first stop was the grocery store, since there had been an odd aisle in it wherein I saw motor oil, and it opened at 7:00. It was a long shot, but there was a possibility they had camp fuel that I had overlooked. Unfortunately they did not. Close by however, there happened to be a hardware store that opened in 5 minutes, at 7:30. They seemed to be fairly construction centred, but hey, hope springs eternal. Unfortunately they didn't have what I needed either. What they did have however, was a helpful man behind the counter. I asked about possible sources that would be open before 9:00, and he suggested "K&D's", and told me where it was. It turned out to be something like a small Home Depot with a liberal sprinkling of Canadian Tire thrown in, and it also turned out to have exactly what I needed! Hooray for K&D!
Very relieved, I headed back to the hostel, picking up a couple of ham-and-egg-omelette-roll kinda things (throw meat and bread together, or most variations thereof, and a Tasmanian will eat it - and so will I) for breakfast on the way. Arriving at the hostel, I dropped into the kitchen/dining room and wolfed them down, then grabbed my pack and bag of extras, and checked out. I decided to trust the local knowledge of the front desk person as to the location of the bus terminal (her answer was one of the more likely of the choices I already had), and fortunately was not led astray. I left my bag of extras at the bus station ($5, with no particular time limit - turns out they basically pretend it's a delivery, destination Hobart), and was shortly on my way to Lake St. Clair.
The bus trip was uneventful but had some interesting scenery. It was raining lightly on and off the whole way up, which unfortunately lasted the whole day. On arrival at the Lake St. Clair visitor centre, I registered my walk, then bought a raincoat and woolen gloves, and set out at 1:00. The walk up the side of Lake St. Clair was wet and chilly, with generally dreary weather. Apparently Lake St. Clair is the deepest lake in Tasmania, and quite picturesque, but personal confirmation of that will have to wait for my next visit.
At the north end of Lake St. Clair is Narcissus hut, where I spent my first night on the track. There was a family of five there when I arrived. They were at the end of day seven, coming down from the north, and were taking the ferry across Lake St. Clair the next morning. Everybody was looking forward to warm beds and hot showers... Another couple showed up a short while later, who were also coming down from the north, and were on day five. The wife had recently caught some sort of bug and had a sore throat, but had thus far been able to hide it from her husband. Not sure what was up with that, but no big deal, since they were going to be taking the ferry across the next morning as well. There was some talk of lighting the coal stove, but as the temperature was over 10C (at least before we went to bed) that was technically against the rules. In retrospect I think that was the coldest night I spent on the track.
I woke up in good time the next morning (the 23rd), had my breakfast of boiled water and muesli, packed up and was on the track at 8:45. It was a much nicer day, and I tried to get a picture of a wallaby that morning, but it trotted away because I was taking too long getting the camera out of my pack. I took the lesson to heart, and kept the camera in my hand for pretty much the rest of the walk. I had lunch at Windy Ridge hut around 11:15, got a good view at Du Cane hut, and continued on to Kia Ora hut. Kia Ora was a possible stopping point, and a quite nice one at that, but it was only about 4:00 at that point, so I decided to go for broke. I spent half an hour resting my feet and eating muesli bars, then headed for New Pelion hut. I arrived at 7:15.
Let me put that another way. As of this writing, March 23, 3 months later, I still haven't regained full feeling in two of the toes on my right foot. Perhaps I never will.
Enough of my whining though. New Pelion was easily the nicest hut on the track. Very large, gas burner, single/double bunks, good company, and a lovely view. It was getting late when I arrived though, so that would have to wait for the morning. I ate my dinner of creamy noodles, and hit the sack.
I made an even earlier start of it the next morning (the 24th), and got away at 8:15. The weather was even better than the day before, and picture-wise, this was the best day of the track, so I'll just point out a few highlights, and you can click around from there. I should also note that while I was taking these pictures, I had no idea what I was seeing. (Purity of the experience and all that, you understand.) The notes accompanying the pictures are my best attempts at reconstructing things from memory, and maps, and times on the pictures. Of course there are some things I'm sure about, so by working around them I think I got things basically right.
I made Waterfall Valley hut sometime after 5:00, which gave me lots of time to claim a bunk and eat. I could even sit out in the sun and read for a few minutes, which was nice because Waterfall Valley is a beautiful place in good weather, and the weather would turn the next day. The hut area was reasonably sheltered, but the gusts that made it down to us carried a bit of a chill.
In any case, another dusk and another dawn brought me to the 25th of December, and a decision. If you checked out my planned itinerary, you may know that I had 4.5 days to complete this little trek. You probably don't know that it usually takes 5-7, but if you've been keeping track you may have already realised that at the end of 2.5 days, I was at my last stop before the end. So, do I take Christmas day off, and spend it resting my feet in Waterfall Valley, or do I grin and bear it, spend Christmas day walking off the track, and have all of the 26th completely free to do whatever I wish? Well let's see... I have a high degree of personal competitiveness, I'm a glutton for punishment, and I love flexibility. Decision made. Onward ho!
In a perverse way, this was my favourite day on the track, and not because I started late (10ish I think). Rather, the freezing rain and biting wind on the approach to Cradle Mountain made the experience more like a challenge overcome than just another day of walking. Things settled down in the shelter of the mountain, and I made it out to Kitchen hut sometime around noon, just in time for my lunch of sausage and dijonnaise in pita bread. Kitchen hut is just an emergency shelter, but given the wind and the intermittent rain, it was well suited to the task. Appropriately fueled up, I continued on, and shortly thereafter got a good view of Cradle Mountain, and finally had some idea what all the fuss is about. The views on the way down the mountain were quite beautiful as well. An hour or so later I was at Waldheim, and registered my completion of the track, with 1.5 days to spare.
Not that I was done walking... A couple of hours later, I made it to the Cradle Mountain Park visitor centre, and caught the free shuttle bus out of the park, which dropped me off near Cosy Cabins park. I got a bed in a backpacker's bunkroom, and had a shower. I had heard a rumour on the track (in Waterfall Valley hut I think) that there was a buffet Christmas dinner being served somewhere nearby, so I inquired at the office, and discovered that it was at the hotel just 500m down the road. I walked over, and failed to get in due to my lack of a reservation. Doh! Well, sometimes life is rough. I went back to the campground, cooked up my normal dinner of creamy noodles, and went to bed.
The next morning (the 26th) I found myself with a full day before the bus would arrive to take me back to Hobart. Luckily, I was on the border of a national park, and fully equipped for a day of walking. I had breakfast, and caught the shuttle in to the visitor centre. I whetted my appetite with a guided half hour wildflower walk starting from the centre, then caught the shuttle to the Dove Lake carpark, and headed for Hanson's Peak. The Hanson's Peak walk was even more exhilirating than the approach to Cradle Mountain the day before. Not only was there wind-driven freezing rain, but I wasn't carrying my pack, and the views weren't obstructed by fog/clouds. The sun was for the most part, but one gets used to that. My feet were also still somewhat unhappy, but the missing weight of my pack helped a whole lot. Once I achieved the peak, I guess the wildflower walk went to my head. I also got lots of good shots on the way down. It's amazing what will grow in some places. As I bid farewell to Cradle Mountain Park I got the notion that someday, I would return.
That evening I popped over to the Wilderness (photography) Gallery adjacent the nearby hotel, dropped $10 on them, and spent a couple of hours enjoying their fine Tasmanian wines and cheeses while examining their lovely walls. A delightful and relaxing evening, and not the last time I would enjoy lots of Tasmanian wine for cheap!
After another good rest in my bunk, I caught my bus back to Hobart. After another uneventful but long bus ride, I hoofed it over to the Pickled Frog and checked in. Clearly a different sort of establishment than Montgomery's YHA, but I'd been expecting that, and it was part of the point really - diversity of experience and all that. It was quite serviceable in any case, and I left my stuff on my bunk and headed down to the harbour. I got fish and chips from flippers, then wandered around a bit while I ate.
Imagine my surprise when I happened upon the opening night of The Taste of Tasmania. Apparently this is an annual event in Hobart, in celebration/promotion of Tasmanian food/culture. Apparently one also generally needs a ticket to get in on opening night. When I arrived at the gate however, it was getting on in the evening, and according to a guard, "a bunch of people [had] just left". All having gone so well thus far, I was almost reluctant to believe that I could get unlimited free wine with the purchase of a $5 glass, but the evidence was all around me. $5 later I was once again sampling Tasmanian wine and cheese, this time with a much larger selection. There was lots of other food as well, but it was for sale at normal prices. It's probably lucky for my wallet that I had just finished a dinner of fish and chips, as I only had room (without hurting myself) for dessert. Having covered the food part, I went to check out the culture part. I caught the end of a performance by Popeyed, and the final performance of the TYBBA. Sated with Tasmanian wine and food and culture, I headed back to the Pickled Frog for a slightly pickled sleep.
Free breakfast at the Pickled Frog consisted of corn flakes, which was simply not sufficient for my reawakened palate (not that I didn't eat it), so I packed everything up, left most of it in storage, and headed back down to the harbour. I took some official pictures on the way down, then managed to find a decent breakfast for a non-outrageous price (a rarity in both Australia and New Zealand, let me tell you). I passed some time walking around Battery Point, then went back in to the Taste of Tasmania.
I saw a university taiko drumming club near the entrance, then went in to continue my sampling tour. An hour or so later I headed out to get a good seat for Popeyed's afternoon performance. Quite an impressive pair. I wandered around the harbour some more, running across Mr. Spin and a Leopard Man. I also discovered that due to my flight schedule, I would miss the first boats in on the Sydney - Hobart sailing race, possibly by a matter of hours. Unfortunate, but it's not like I planned any of this. I had to hurry away from the Leopard Man though, because I still had to get my bags from the Pickled Frog, and make it to the bus terminal to catch the shuttle to the airport.
All went well on my end, and I made the airport in good time, but my flight left an hour late. Not a big deal, and we got a tailwind. A couple hours later, I was in Sydney. I caught the Airporter shuttle to Sydney Central YHA, checked in and dropped my bags, stepped out to wander around the block and get a sense of place, then went to bed.
Well that gets me to Sydney, and there's certainly more to tell, but the rest of the website is done, and writing this seems to take time, so I've put everything in place, and I'll just continue this bit at my leisure. Stay tuned.