This is my last day in New Zealand. Tomorrow early morning I'm flying out to Australia. It is finally sunny in New Zealand, but it is also a time to leave. I have a feeling that I had enough of New Zealand exploration. For the past 2 weeks I have been travelling around the North Island after arriving to Wellington by a ferry that crosses the Cook Straight between the South and Norht Islands.
My aunt lives near Wellington and so I had a chance to spend the New Year in a family circle and be treated and pampered really well between my short forays into the North Island tramps and tracks.
Most of the time the weather was not great, but I managed to get the best out of the few good days that I had. It is official now - this summer is so far the worst they ever had in New Zealand in the past 50 years (some say in the past 150 years). But it's time to stop complaining about the rain as I'm heading to the very hot Australia.
But let's put some order into my story.
Just a couple of days before the New Year I crossed the Cook Straight from the South to the North Island on a huge ferry. The crossing takes about 4 hours and the ferry is a multideck ship with bars, movies, playrooms, etc.. I spent most of the time on the open rear deck drinking beer and watching a bird following the ship. It is amazing how easily it follows a fast ship without any visible wing motion. Just an occasional flip of a wing and it catches the airstream and just floats in it behind the ship, then takes a quick circle, catches something out of the water and effortlessly gets back. Very elegant.
In Wellington I was met by my aunt, who for the past 10 years has been living in New Zealand. She lives in a small quiet village of Waikanai 40 minutes away from Wellington - New Zealand's capital and the second largest city (after Auckland).
The New Year festivities in New Zealand are not something to write home about and so I won't. Some people do barbeque but go to bed well before the clock strikes 12, some go to a restaurant, but nothing comes close to what you would see in big cities in US, Europe or Russia.
So, a day after New Year I rented a car from a local agency and went up North to do a couple more hikes and look around the North Island. The North Island, while very close to the South Island, differs from it quite a bit in its character. While the South Island is more rugged, spectacular and wild, the North one is more mellow, civilized and cultivated. There are large areas of agricultural landscapes and fields, more plains, denser road networks which are also get much more traffic. And no surprise - about 3/4 of the population lives on the North Island. It is also a summer holiday time in schools here and families go to the beaches and the parks. They also go to the hikes and tramps and those get quite busy.
But do not think that the North Island is not worth the visit. It has its share of natural wonders and places one should not miss if coming to New Zealand. One of those places is a volcanic region which is located right in the middle of the island. The whole area has been geologically active until very recentely and some of the volcanoes are still considered active or semi-dormant. The tallest volcano - mt. Ruapehu (2796m) is wide, flat, somewhat covered in snow even in summer and is a popular ski resort in winter. But the most beautiful one is mt. Ngauruhoe (2290m), which has a perfect steep conical shape with cut off top of a volcano you would see drawn in a child's book. It is also colored in black and dark red tones which on the background of white clouds passing by adds to its magical appearance. No wonder that this mountain featured in some of the "Lord of the Ring" scenes. There are other volcanoes around with mt. Tongariro lending its name to the whole area - "Tongariro National Park". There are no trees in the park - it's all lava fields, lava formations, craters filled with emerald colored water, tough grasses and sands and a few smaller volcanoes sticking out of the hilly landscape. The clowds run really low and, lit by the setting sun, create a very surrealistic, mystical air. You feel like you would not be surprised if you would meet a gnome, a dragon or a sorcerer in these lands. I arrived in the park late in the day and the forecast was good for tomorrow but really bad for the following few days. The park has a number of hikes ranging from a single day, most popular "Tongariro Crossing" up to a 6 day "Round the Mountains" trek. So, I settled on the single day Crossing for tomorrow, but as there was no place to spend the night nearby, I packed my sleeping bag, stove and food and hiked out 2 hours into one of the huts along the longer trek. Early morning I joined the "Crossing" trail and run into the crowds of other 1 day visitors. It was still very early and I decided to add both mt. Ngauruhoe and mt Tongariro to the day, to spice things up and get away from the crowds.
mt. Ngauruhoe, as I wrote earlier is a perfect cone of volcanic rock and ash. Well... Mostly ash. There is no definite trail up, you start in one of the ash runoffs and try to walk up. It is like walking on a spring snow - your feet sink in and then finally you get some traction. Two steps up give you a distance of one real step. The trick is to find rocky ridges/dykes and hold close to them or on them whenever possible, but the rock is very fragile and sharp at the same time. Well, an hour later I was a the top. There is a large crater filled with snow and some steaming vents on the sides - the mountain is still breathing. But the most spectacular was the view. Despite the mountain not being very tall, all the cloudcovers were way below me with some other volcanoes sticking out and showng their craters and emerald lakes in the old crateres with red and black colors of the earth adding more contrast to the picture. Coming down was easy - you just ski/slide on your feet down one of the ash chutes with treking poles helping to keep the ballance. 10 minutes later I was 1000 meters lower, back on the trail. The crowds only increased during this time and I moved quickly to the mt. Tongariro. It's a really old volcano and not much is left of it, but many years ago it was the dominating force in the region and all the other volcanoes around the park are its "children". The views kept changing from magical to magnificent and a few hours later I was at an intersection where the longer 3-day "Norther Circuit" trail veered left and there was only a short distance left on my trail. As it was only noon, I decided to try and do the whole 3 day walk in 1 day. So far I've been quite successful in taking half the time to do the "official" times on most of the popular trails. Once I got onto the 3-day trail, the crowds dissapeared and the rest of the day I was walking alone with only a couple of people met during the next 8 hours. The landscape was fantastic - flatlands of the old enormous craters filled with sand and surrounded by strange lava formations. I passed 2 more huts on the way resting and eating the last crumbs of food I took with me. The last section was pretty brutal on my feet as I have already covered a large distance since the early morning and cumulatively climbed at least 2000m and went down the same. So the last "official" 5 hour stretch from the last hut to the parking indeed took me almost 5 hours. I got to my car and the nearby cafe before the closing time just in time for some large burger and beer. As I was hiking the last stretch the heavy clouds came in and by the time I drove to the next town to spend the night the rain has started. Perfect timing. I spent a night in a nice and clean "backpackers". That's how they call hostels here. When you travel alone, "backpackers" are the best accomodations as you get to meet other people - travellers from all over the world. These "backpackers" provide you with a big communal areas including kitchen with stoves, cooking utensils and refrigirators, game rooms, TV rooms, washers and driers and other facilities so needed by the tired travelers. I was too tired to talk and in the morning, after checking on the internet where the weather is better, headed out to the east coast. I'm not a beach person. I could never learn to enjoy beaches. Even in the nice and sunny day that I had on the east coast I went for a quick swim in a pretty cold water, dried up and headed towards the next "Great Walk" of New Zealand. This one - around the Lake Waikaremoana. I will not describe the details of this walk as one has to walk it to appreciate its views and beauty of the sunrises and sunsets and cliffs and water colors. Excellent huts, very well maintained trails and regulated number of people that can be on the walk at the same time make all "Great Walks" a real pleasure to be on. That is in addition to the Walks being in the most beautiful places in the country.
I need to learn to pace myself. I go too fast on these walks and despite taking time to take pictures, video and look around I still feel that I may benefit from walking more slowly. But I guess it is in my nature to walk as fast as the trail and my legs allow. So two days later I finished the 4 day trek and headed back to my aunt's house where I spent the last few days relaxig, visiting Wellington, sampling excellent New Zealand wines,writing this e-mail and enjoing the feeling of being at home - something I will probably not have in the months to come.
I now want to add some observations that I have been collecting over that past few weeks and some interesting facts I learned about New Zealand.
1. Maoris did not have their own written language and it was made up later, when the Europeans came. After a number of wars and conflicts a peace has been made and maoris got to keep a lot of their heritage. There are two official languages in New Zealand and while few people speak maori, in most cultural places you would see writings in both languages. Also most of the places in New Zealand have Maori names. The exceptions are big cities like Wellington, Auckland and a few more. All small towns, mountains, rivers, forests, and other georgraphical features have Maori names. A lot of those names start with "W" or "Wh" (which is read as soft "F") and the names are pretty long. That makes it quite difficult for visitors like me to discuss places I've been to or going to go to with other people. I just have a very hard time remembering and distinguishing Waiouru, Waikenae, Wharepapa, Whakapapa, Waiharuru, Waiopaoa, Whanganui, etc...
2. Birds. If you are into birdwatching - New Zealand is an interesting destination. Historically birds have been the only species that lived in NZ. All the mammals have been brought in first by the polynesians and later by the europeans. When the birds did not have natural predators on the ground, some of them lost their ability to fly - later on they sufferd a sad fate of becoming extinct when they could not run away from the introduced predators like opossums (or people). The kiwi bird has survived and is being highly protected. Unfortunately I did not get to see one. They do exist in zoos but even there, being a nocturnal bird, it does not show up much during the day, sitting in its burow. But there is plenty of other funny looking birds around that you would not see in any other part of the world.
3. Native forests vs. introduced ones. A lot of the flora in New Zealand is the one introduced either by polynesians or by Europeans. Huge areas of the native growth has been burned down when polyneesians arrived. Back home they used the fires to clear up the jungles for the crops fields. Then in a few years they would move on and the jungle would regrow. However in a less tropical climate of New Zealand, whatever has been burned has not regrown or was taking hundreds of years to regrow back.
4. Clouds. I would probably be not too far from truth if I say that clouds have been the most amazing sight I have been seeing in New Zealand. They fly low and high, multilevel. The low ones are often extremely fast, like a smoke of a fire under high winds. They are so close that you feel you can touch them and sometimes they do envelope you, but even then, through them you see the next layers above moving fast and slow. You see them climbing up the mountains and then slowly rolling down over the cols into the valleys like gigantic waterfalls. And they are not just grey and white. The low sun during the slow dawns and dusks colors each layer differently so some are colored from above and some from below and sometimes you are on the hill in between and see both sides turning purple and violet and rose and yellow and magenta and all the other color mixes for which I do not have the names. It is interesting that Maoris called themselves "people of the mist". I wonder if that's because of those spectacularly low clowds in these lands. I wish my small camera could capture at least a glimpse of the show. 5. Safety. I always assumed that New Zealand is this kind of paradize where everything is good and all people live happy. But I was alarmed at how many tourist places warn you about cars being broken in on various trailheads. The usual advice is to leave the car in the nearest town and take a shuttle or hitch a ride to a trailhead. This is especially strong on a more heavily populated North Island. I got lucky and nobody have broken in into mine but the park service people told me that in some places it is not safe to leave the car unattended even for a few hours. "Lots of poor people around there" - they told me. I find it sad when "poor" and "thief" becomes synonymous in people's minds.
6. Queen on the coins. The coins in New Zealand have the portrait of the Queen of England. What I found amazing though, is that they keep the image updated according to the Queen's age. So on the coins from 1970 the queen is really young, then in the 80s you get a more matyre image, then in the 90s she is an older lady and on the coins from 2002 she is pretty old. I noticed this on my second day in NZ, and I showed it to a few New Zealanders. Many of them have never noticed this fact.
7. Sink faucets. Everywhere, even in the private houses the sink has two separate faucets, one giving cold water stream and the other - hot water. The hot water is really hot, and it becomes quite inconvenient to wash hands as you either burn yourself or have to first get some cold water in your hands and then move over to the hot flow. To add to the inconvenience the faucets are usually set at the opposit sides of the sink. I find this totally inefficient. Well. At least in the showers the hot and cold gets mixed together.
8. Cost of climbing and other gear. This is just unbelivable. It is 2 to 4 times more expensive here then back in US. I understand that it costs more to export to NZ, but a single ice tool for $900!!! Even the locally made stuff is at least twice as expensive as similar items would have cost in US or in Europe. So if you are thinking of coming to NZ to climb - bring all the stuff with you and do not count on buying here anything significant. If you come here for just tramping/hiking, lots of things can be rented cheaply (tent - $7-$10 a day, similar for backpacks, sleeping bags, etc). There are also K-Mart style tents and sleeping bags if you really need to buy for a hike or two, which are cheap, but bulky, heavy and not of good quality). Same price difference goes for quality electronics with digital cameras being at least double of retail US prices.
9. NZ beers and NZ wines are excellent.
Oh well... Time to wrap up and pack the bags for Australia.
Hope you are all doing well,
Till next time, --Misha