Saturday, April 28, 2007

Last Few Days

After talking to GG about getting rid of the mattress and wood before selling the van to him, I knew I'd have a fun night and/or morning ahead of me. I woke up early the next day, got some clothes on, and then I headed out to the street to Willy to begin disassembling the very sturdy wooden base and table that had been custom made for him. With my tiny screwdriver, I twisted and turned, both hands cramping and blistering, as the maker did quite a good job putting everything in place and securing it. I toiled for an hour and a half, pulling out 53 long, stubborn screws and taking apart some of the wood pieces before giving up and heading to the Salvation Army to drop off the mattress and make the sale. I finally got to GG's house, and he was somewhat satisfied, though he then had trouble turning the key in the ignition, though I could do it perfectly, even from the passenger's seat, so apparently he's not too good with cars. He gave me the cash, dropped me off down the road, and I was done! It was a great feeling, but I was also a little cautious for the next few days, carrying around $4,100 in cash until the bank opened on Monday. Of course I wanted to keep it close to me, feeling for it every few minutes. When the bank finally did open, the transfer was quick and easy (assuming it does go through), and I also found a nice little park right behind our hostel that I wish I had found a week or two earlier.

My time spent here in Aotearoa/New Zealand (The Land of the Long White Cloud) has been incredible and unforgettable. I've seen so many varied landscapes and amazing places, along with wildlife and a few interesting cities, most of them in the comfort and convenience of my campervan, which made this trip quite unique. I'm ready to move on, but I have to say that I think it would be hard to find a country that offers so much, especially in such a small package. I'd definitely recommend it to anyone considering an outdoor vacation, though it is just a bit far from the US. Tomorrow, I'm off to Sydney, and I have absolutely no plans as to what I'll do with my six weeks in Australia. It's such a huge country, so I'll have to pick and choose a few of the highlights for this trip...

(The City of Sails on my last day with Willy)(A controversial billboard from a funny show about a fake psychic. There are a few other good ones around town, and I took this shot from the road, on the way to the Salvation Army.)

The Face of Travel

With not much to do in the days awaiting the sale of my van and leaving Auckland, the burning desires to finally shave my face got the best of me. As I began shaving, I was actually surprised to see how bushy my beard had become, definitely exceeding my expectations. The moustache and fullness of the beard could certainly still use some work, though.

(The "full" beard and moustache still intact, but not for long...)
(The moustache and goatee...not the best look)(Count of Monte Cristo look...even worse...)(Much better and younger looking...I guess I had grown accustomed to my shaggy look)(Ahhhh. So smooth)

Getting Out of Auckland

Fortunately after the near disaster the night before, my last day driving through the Coromandel Peninsula was rather uneventful, which is exactly what I needed. I followed the empty road up to the top of the peninsula where it cut across to the Western shore, an area of more pebble beaches and small coastlines as opposed to the picturesque Eastern beaches such as Cathedral Cove, Hahei Beach and Hot Water Beach. The road meandered over a few more large hills before coming down to the water's edge, following along the coast about 10 feet above water level. Parts of the road were covered by a canopy created by rows of short, weathered trees that had been molded by the winds, with some overhanging branches arching over the road below, though still providing views of the water, and, off in the distance, Auckland. The day was mostly overcast with slight bits of rain though still rather pleasant. I thought the melancholy atmosphere was appropriate for my last day on the road with Willy, happy to have been able to see so much, but a bit shocked by the incident the night before and sad that I'd soon be back in the city and finished touring the spectacular countryside. I longed for some music to accompany me and my mood, and Jan A.P. Kaczmarek's soundtrack to Finding Neverland was the perfect blend of brooding, yet elegant classical music.

I made a final stop in the town of Thames at the base of the peninsula. A typical small town with a few major roads, I searched for a phone booth, and I meant to find an internet cafe to see if I could find an Automobile Association office. I found out a few days earlier that I carelessly forgot to file the last piece of paperwork when I bought Willy, so David received a letter saying that the sale was never completed, so I hoped that I could work that situation out before arriving in Auckland and trying to sell the van soon afterwards. As luck would have it, I drove all the way to the end of town before finding a phone booth, and while on the phone, I looked up and noticed an AA office no more than 30 feet away from me. I went in, was the only customer in the place, and I was able to pay the $9 fee and get the van completely taken care of in less than 5 minutes, which was so much better than having to go into Auckland and the middle of downtown and dealing with long lines and things like that. Soon, I was back in Auckland, back at the same hostel as before in the pleasant, Victorian neighborhood of Parnell. The next morning I called Jobst to sell my van and be ready to leave in a week's time, but he bluntly let me know that he decided not to wait and bought another van the day before. I guess he didn't feel the need to let me know, and the frustrating thing is that he wasn't at all remorseful or apologetic despite the agreement we had from our emails.

With selling Willy the main reason I was back in Auckland so early, I moved on to my next options. I posted and re-posted a bunch of ads on the internet (which I had already done), and I started corresponding with a few shady emailers that were surely scams, as they'd have their agents come pick the car up and bring a cashier's check or money order. I thought I'd give it a chance in case it was real, but I continued to get a bad feeling about these two people, so I was very cautious and not too optimistic about my chances. I would have one random caller or email every few days, stringing me along, keeping me checking email frequently during the day for updates, but three or four different customers fell through. The problem is that the timing of the sale is horrible. There are tons of backpackers finishing out their summers in NZ, trying to get rid of all sorts of cars and vans before heading back home, so the competition is fierce, with signs and postings littering the streets and message boards of any hostel, internet cafe or similar place in town. Many of the backpackers are also needing to leave quickly and thus cutting their selling prices in half, killing the competitive market for me. I had bought a nicer van from David, in much better condition, more reliable and way less miles than these other cars, and I knew that I'd need to find a Kiwi buyer to appreciate that and hopefully fetch the price that I was asking, $5,000.

I went to a car fair on Sunday, along with about 50 other vans and numerous other cars, but the foot traffic was rather scarce, mostly other sellers looking around and comparing prices of their own cars. I had one man that wanted to use Willy as a tour van up North, but he told me that the price was a joke, and he offered to pay $2,500 if I wanted to get rid of it. I got his business card, hoping it wouldn't come to that but not too encouraged by my prospects. I had another Scottish guy that was buying a van for the winter in which he'd live, and then he was looking to make money in the spring by selling it to some of the first backpackers of next year, which is a fairly good idea, if you have the time. Most of the four or five hours at the car fair were spent standing outside the van, chatting with the two German girls, Tina and Juliane, next to me who had a rather shoddy minivan, complete with a bed in the back, cow print curtains, black electrical tape pinstripes and name of the front "Chiller Bag," and life sized poster of some surfer guy taped to the ceiling of the van. They told me about their adventures, and they also agreed that my price was way too high. We also laughed at a German couple who had apparently mastered their own sort of sign language/hand signals as one of them would get up close to the cars and check it out while the other stood far away, making a few small gestures with their fingers at about waist level. We figured if we could pick up their code, we could trick them into buying our cars, but the system was indecipherable. One more Japanese guy came by and seemed interested in the van, though he insisted that the mileage could not be real and must've been rolled back. Frustrated, I explained that it wasn't the case, but I really didn't care to argue with him about it. Half an hour later, he came back and examined the van from front to back for about 20 minutes, checking out the nooks underneath the carpet, the owner's manual (which, heaven forbid, is a generic Toyota Hiace one, not specific to Willy), my service records (thanks to David) and everything else imaginable. I found one good record that did a good job proving the mileage records over the past ten years, though he still assured me that "any Kiwi wouldn't believe that." (being quite the Japanese Kiwi himself, apparently) He lectured me on how cars are driven in NZ, and how it still couldn't be real, but I again didn't feel like disputing the point. In the end, he got my information, and I got his, but it was hard to tell what, if anything, would happen with that. Besides that, my only other option was a construction worker who saw the car online and had a look. He was really impressed with the condition of the van, but he kept delaying his decision and leading me on, but in the end he went with a cheaper van. It's hard not having a phone at times, as I had to balance out continually calling him to get updates while not bothering him or sounding too desperate, which soon became the case after I realized how hard it was going to be to find a buyer.

I was supposed to leave on Tuesday, but I still hadn't found any buyers, so I had to call United and push back my flight. I moved it back one week for $150, hoping that I wouldn't have to do that again. A day or two later, I got an email from my Japanese "friend", GG, saying that he'd still be interested, so of course I jumped at the chance. He came by the hostel and looked over the van again very thoroughly, and he then took it out for a test drive. He had a bit of trouble with the manual transmission on the column, but he wasn't as bad as the rental car owner in Wellington a month earlier. He also wanted to test Willy's power up the hills of Auckland, which isn't necessarily his strong point, but luckily GG apparently isn't a fan of shifting too often, so Willy did seem fairly formidable as he revved up the hills. Everything went well, and he told me that he'd get back to me (those dreaded words that I'd already heard too much), and he also told me that his wife's first reaction was the the mileage had to be fake. I again explained that I understood his point, but I had the records and no reason to believe otherwise, especially knowing that my friend had owned the car for the past couple of years. I spent the next few days waiting and walking around the streets of Auckland, Queen St (the main tourist thoroughfare), and a few of the local parks. Finally, as time was drawing down for the week, and it looked as though I'd have to try out another of the car fairs on the weekend, I was starting to get worried. GG kept looking at other vans and was pushing back the deadlines. He asked me what my lowest price that I'd take would be, though he let it slip that he was looking in the $4,000 range, as I was thinking that I might have to take $3,000 or 3,500 for the van, so I decided to tell him that I could go down to 4,300, hoping to not lose too much money on this sale. As the days went by, I hoped that I hadn't ruined the deal, so I decided on Thursday night that I'd call him the next morning and tell him that if he bought it now for 4,000, he could have it. I figured I'd give him time to get up and around, so I'd call him at it happens, I received an email from him at 8 am that morning.

I was scared to open it, fearing that I may have lost another potential sale and that I'd have to start the process all over. Amazingly, I opened it, and he decided that he wanted to offer $4,150, so I was ecstatic. I played it cool and called him a bit later, telling him that the price would be fine with me, and we planned to make the transaction that next day, Friday. With my last day with Willy, I decided to drive around Auckland a bit more, visiting a few of the hills and lookout points of the city. I first went to a huge green volcanic hill called Mt. Eden and smirked at the tour groups that came and went. I next stopped at another of the larger volcanic cones, One Tree Hill, so I of course had to get out my iPod and listen to the U2 song of the same name. Quite a good one from Joshua Tree. Unfortunately, One Tree Hill is now a misnomer, as the tree that stood alone atop the mound is no longer there, but I didn't hear the story of its demise. Later, GG picked up the cash and gave me directions to his house nearby, so I cleaned out my things from Willy and headed over there, excited to finally be done with all of this hassle and worrying. When I pulled up, though, it looked as though something was wrong. GG explained that he thought I'd be taking the mattress, attached table and bed stand out of the back, though he never said a word about that to me. He was particularly concerned about the mattress, telling me that there was no way he could get rid of it and actually acting as if this were a deal-breaker for him. The 50-something, gray haired Japanese guy said that he didn't have time to deal with that, as his new business was starting on Monday. After a lot of staring and thinking, I decided that we could call the Salvation Army, and I'd drop it off on Saturday as well as try to take apart the frame for him before returning in the afternoon for the sale. I couldn't believe the situation, but I was willing to do any sort of work to make sure the transaction went through...

(The green, terraced crater of Mt. Eden. You can see the city skyline and the point of the Sky Tower in the left center of the picture)(Willy on his second to last day in my possession, with the skyline looming overhead)(It's not often that you get a picture of a cow and a city skyline at the same time)(The former spot of the tree on One Tree Hill)
(The sun setting over the city on ANZAC day, with a view just minutes from my hostel)

Willy's Demise???

As I left Cathedral Cove, Hot Water Beach and Whitianga, I headed up into the forested hills, hoping for a nice gravel pullout or eventually a beach-side spot for my last night in the great outdoors before heading back to Auckland for my last few days and hoping to sell Willy. I spotted a few nice looking grassy areas along the waterfront just outside of town, but the signs were clear and overnight camping was forbidden, so I stayed away. I hadn't had any problems with my camping spots before, and I didn't want to end up being awoken in the middle of the night by a policeman or park ranger. The small road passed through another tiny town before heading inland a bit and beginning up a sizable hill. As we struggled up the hill, dusk was beginning to set in, and I hoped for a nice pullout at the top of the hill, as there are usually stops or picnic areas at the tops of these large hills, allowing slower cars to pull out or letting people just take a break. Just as I hoped, I rounded the last corner while still moving uphill and saw the familiar sign indicating a picnic area 400 meters ahead, usually a great spot to spend a few minutes or spend the night. I soon pulled into the spot, with a slightly slanted open area large enough for about three cars on top with a picnic table and a tiny patch of grass at the edge and then a semi-circular gravel pullout connecting to the main road there and again about 50 feet down the hill below. I pulled into the top area, which looked like an ideal spot to spend the night, though a little bit unlevel. As I've mentioned before, sleeping on an incline from head to toe isn't too bad, but it's painfully obvious if it's not level from side to side, creating a bit of an annoyance as trying to fall asleep. I've thought about even trying to get a level from a hardware store, as it's really hard to tell how level the van is from the driver's seat without actually experiencing it for yourself in the back. To help this problem, a few times I've parked the car while leaving it on and tried out laying in the bed before turning it off and settling in for the night. Being an older car, I also don't like to restart the car all the time, so I have left it running a few times doing things like this and my numerous photo stops along the gorgeous roads of the country. So, I pulled forward and back, up and down, inching this way and that before positioning the wheels on the most level spot that I could find. My first attempt was alright, as I pulled the parking brake, leaving the van in neutral so that the manual transmission would keep running, but after a few seconds in the back, I could tell that it wouldn't be a comfortable night, so I got up and moved the van again, finding a pretty nice spot on the tiniest of bumps, leveling out the car from side to side, though still slightly downhill.

Again, I pulled the parking brake and went around into the back of the van, hopping onto the bed, laying on one side, then the other, feeling pretty good about the spot. As I was about to get up and turn the van off, I heard two strange creaking noises coming from the back of the car. "Great," I thought, "just as I'm about to sell Willy, he starts making some weird noises that I've never heard before. That will be a great selling point to Jobst," a German guy with whom I've shared a few emails and seems keen to buy Willy when I arrive back in Auckland. Just after that thought crossed my mind, I turned over and looked out the window, only to notice that the trees outside were starting to move. Instantly, I realized that the sounds I had heard were the parking brake squeaking as Willy slowly started to roll down the slight incline. I immediately popped up, and my mind raced as I thought of what to do, everything happening and flying through my mind in one frantic instant. I very, very quickly contemplated trying to jump into the driver's seat through the small opening through the framework and over the middle bench seat, but I knew there wasn't time. Going with my next option, I threw open the sliding door of the van and jumped out as the van rolled slowly, though the heavy vehicle was gaining speed and momentum with every inch traveled. I couldn't believe that the familiar scene from movies and tv could actually be happening to me. As I jumped out of the van, I ran around to the front of the van, momentarily contemplating throwing my hands up and my whole weight into the vehicle to try to stop it, but luckily that fleeting thought was followed by the realization that there would be absolutely no way that I could stop the rolling van by myself, so I continued to run around to the front, right side (driver's side here) of Willy. My heart and mind was racing, and Willy had traveled about 15 feet at this point, just passing by a tiny row of trees and a mound separating the picnic table area from the crescent shaped gravel pullout just below.

I knew I'd need to get to the driver's seat to try to stop the van before it reached the drop-off just on the other side of the gravel pullout. As Willy was passing by the tiny stand of trees, I put my arms forward and burst through the branches, getting a few scratches and bruises that were the least of my concerns at the time. I grabbed the driver's door and got it open just as Willy was passing the edge of the trees, hearing the door scrape against the branches as I took a few running steps alongside the van, while getting the door wide open and contemplating my next move. Again, an ephemeral, foolish thought crossed my mind of jumping in and trying to stop the car from the driver's seat, but I also decided against this one and sized up the interior of the car. I focused on the brake pedal, thought for a nano-second about the decision, and then I plunged headfirst towards the pedal with my hands forward. Grasped tightly together as if giving CPR, my hands hit the brake pedal with all of the weight of my upper body. Willy's strong brakes took hold and brought the van abruptly to a stop, skidding just a bit on the gravel. Luckily, as the van was still running, the power brakes helped stop much quicker than it would have otherwise been able. At the same time, my backpack and Chinese food flew threw the air with their momentum, hitting the dashboard and falling to the floor. I looked up and saw that I had stopped the van just a few feet and less than a second away from the edge of the hill that had been approaching way too quickly. I kept one hand firmly on the brake pedal and pulled the emergency brake back as far as I could before carefully daring to venture into the van. Still in a bit of a precarious position, I backed the van up a bit and then pulled forward, amazingly free of that incredible escapade.

I couldn't believe what had just happened, but I got back in the car and pulled back to the main road below, noticing that I was having much trouble shifting and using the clutch, as my left leg was shaking uncontrollably. I was obviously shaken up, and in the tiny stretch of road between the entrance and exit to the picnic area, I apparently drove very slowly, unaware of anything else, as I noticed someone tailgaiting me as I pulled back into the turnout, but that was the least of my worries. I pulled Willy back into the somewhat flat spot, pulled the brake as hard as possible, put the car in gear and switched it off. The next few minutes were spent with my head in my hands, resting on the steering wheel, replaying the incident over and over in my head, thinking how close I was to completely losing the van. It was my last night out in the woods, having avoided potential trouble for so long, and I couldn't imagine what would have happened if I were just a half second slower or less decisive in reacting. The whole incident took only a few seconds, but it was amazing how much went through my mind and allowed me to save the van in time. Given the poor insurance policy that I found (as short term insurance was harder than expected to find), I don't have coverage on the van, only 3rd party liability, so it would have been a complete loss. Just a few feet from the front of the van, the vegetation of the edge of the hill stood imposingly, and only about 10 or 15 feet stood in between the front of my tires and the edge of a fairly large hill. The hill dropped down at a little more than a 45 degree angle, covered with some small trees that I don't really think would have stopped a van barreling down the hill. It would have been a long way down, perhaps a few hundred feet, to try to find the van, get all of my things out of it, then come back up and try to flag down a random passerby on this isolated road in a dark corner of the area. Over and over and over again, I thought how lucky and unbelievable the whole situation was. I looked back at the skid marks to see how close it actually was, and I thought of how unbelievable the whole event was, so I actually decided to put the van back on top of the skid marks, and I saw that the branches of the trees over the edge were nearly touching the windshield where it had halted to a stop. Carefully pulling the brake and putting the van in gear before turning it off, I gingerly got out and took a few pictures to document the event.

Finally I pulled back around again, and I got out of the van and did eat my dinner which stayed surprisingly intact thanks to the plastic container they gave me, but my mind and heart still raced. I checked the parking brake and that the van was in gear three or four times before trusting myself to go in the back and lay down. As I lay there, I had sensations over and over of Willy starting to roll again, reliving the moment time after time. The dark night and the whole place had an understandably bad vibe after all that had happened, so I soon realized that I wouldn't be getting any sleep at all in that spot. I got back in the driver's seat, and I headed back the 20 minute road to Whitianga, driving very slowly and carefully, trying to get the thoughts of disaster out of my mind. I found a nice motorcamp, took a long shower to cool down, and then I parked in a perfectly flat, safe spot on the grassy plain just across from the beach for just $10 a night - at this point, I would have paid anything to have a safe, secure spot to help forget what had just transpired.

In the morning, I actually drove back North again, having to pass the same pullout. Of course, bordering on an obsession with picture taking, I stopped and checked out the scene in daylight, again placing the van back on top of the skid marks to take a few re-creation pictures and remember how close I was to an unforgettable catastrophe.

(The site of the incident - the rest area just off the road, with the gravel turnout along the right side where the van almost slid off)(Willy in the first spot, before starting to roll. Note the small trees in the center of the picture and the edge of the hill to the left.)(Willy's stopping point, quite close to the edge of the gravel pullout)(I didn't have much room or time to spare when I stopped Willy)(With the door opened, I dove in and pushed the brake with all of my strength, stopping right there)
(One more shot of the scene, re-created the next morning for a few more pictures)

Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach

My last major destination of New Zealand was the Coromandel Peninsula, just a few hours North of Rotorua and East of Auckland. On the way up the Northern coast, after passing the numerous roadside stands selling kiwi fruit and feijoas (a sort of sour, small green fruit), I took a brief detour to check out the adjoining towns of Mt. Maunganui and Tauranga. Both towns are small surf towns with nice busy central streets lined with decent looking restaurants and shops, just a short walk from the water. As this is the end of the Summer and moving into Winter, the towns were nice and quiet as most of the gnarly surfers had jetted already. Mt. Maunganui is also a pretty resort town for some locals, with a big green volcanic mound overlooking the water and wide beach below. The beach also has a few rocky, offshore islands and some rock formations on the beach, one of which I sat upon while eating my morning snack of lime and chili flavored tortilla chips and watching the walkers and runners pass below me. I spent an hour or two in the two towns, and then I was soon heading North again to get to the Coromandel. The peninsula is another of the treasures of the North Island, with a few luxurious vacation homes, pine and native forests, and incessant vistas of green hills and pastures in every direction. The views of the countryside were beautiful, as they have been for almost all of my road trip, so I again stopped in random gravel pullouts along the way for pictures, making for a few tight situations trying to turn a large van without power steering around in the width of two lanes while a logging truck is drawing ever closer.

For me, the main attraction of the peninsula was the Cathedral Cove beach, which has been one of the star attractions of NZ in my mind ever since seeing a NZ tourism ad featuring the incredible beach and surroundings. As I've done in many other trips, I wanted to find the exact spot of the picture, knowing that the place would be unbelievable. Following a few small signs, making a few more photo stops at the lookout points, and heading up a large, steep hill, I soon found myself in the parking lot for Cathedral Cove around 4:30 pm, though I wasn't all that happy to see that the dreaded green Kiwi Experience bus was also there, meaning the loads of young travelers/revelers were somewhere below. The parking lot is actually on a bit of a cliff overlooking the bush and white-washed cliffs below and more offshore islands. From there, the trail to the beach winds in and out of forest and pasture land for about 30 minutes until finally leading down a steep set of 200 or so wooden steps to the beach below. I was instantly mesmerized by the place, despite having seen so many images of the place. The first white sandy beach that I stepped upon from the stairs was shaded by a few overhanging trees. Passing through the trees, the wide, 200 yard long beach unfolded before me, surrounded behind by a large stone wall at least a hundred feet tall with more overhanging vegetation and huge, white rock walls on each side. The rock walls seemed to have been washed clean by rain and erosion, leaving a fairly bright, beautifully colored wall to protect both ends of the beach, and to also prevent people from entering other than by boat or the long trail, keeping the beach somewhat secluded. The walls also had a few caves or arches in the bottom where small cracks have morphed over time into large holes and to what will eventually be tunnels to the other sides of the walls. The large wall to the left of me jutted out into the slightly green water, blocking off the next beach if not for the tunnel/archway in the middle, leading to the other side. The large tunnel has been worn away by years and years of erosion, now leaving a vaulted arch about 30 feet wide, 50 feet tall and 30 feet long, covered in sand and just a bit of the ocean water at high tide. By the time I got to the area from the car park, the sun had retreated behind the large walls and trees that surround the beach, so I wasn't even experiencing the ultimate views of the place, yet I was still in awe. I quickly walked through the tunnel, seeing the last two other people leaving the beach, as the Kiwi bus was leaving soon, and I had the whole of the area to myself. The other side of the Cove was similar, with huge white-washed stone walls backing the sandy beach, with one large, pointed rock (somewhat like a spearhead) of the same white rock just out a few yards into the water. The beach on this side was also about the same size, providing a decent amount of room to relax and enjoy the natural beauty of the place. I spent a long time admiring and taking pictures, but I knew I had to come back the next day for even better views of this place.

I quickly made my way back up the often steep, winding trail, deciding to take a different fork in the road at one point, just to change things a bit, heading towards the grove instead of another bay. Soon, I felt like a small child wandering through the dark, scary forests of fairy tales, as the trees, ferns and large boulders seemed to be closing in on me in the narrow trail. Not being able to see far ahead and completely void on any remaining bits of sunlight, I keep going, and I soon exited the thick grove, moving back to the more open main trail before arriving at the parking lot in time for a nice sunset over the cliffs and below. I headed back down the hill to the small semblance of a town on the road below, but the only two restaurants were either closed or over-priced, so I went into the market and got a loaf of bread for a few spartan peanut butter sandwiches for dinner. Then I drove just a minute down the road to the local beach, where I found an ample parking lot for the night, hoping that I wasn't missing any "No Camping" signs in the darkness. The next morning my watch alarm beeped, and I jumped up and quickly made my way to the driver's seat, speeding back up the hill to the Cathedral Cove lookout, as the sunrise is said to be unforgettable from that point. The sunrise was quite nice, watching the orange light come over the clouds and islands off the coast, though it wasn't as spectacular as described, but I still cherish every time that I'm actually able to watch the sunrise, particularly over a beautiful place like this. Just as the sun broke the horizon, I heard a car flying up the hill and then some quick footsteps, and it turned out to be a British woman with a really nice camera that I'd seen the day earlier at one of the lookouts, just in time for a view of the slightly colorful bay. It's funny how sometimes you come across the same people while traveling, including one Jewish guy with huge, curly hair that I've seen in Fiji and a few places here.

After watching the sun rise on the wooden bench overlooking the water, I returned to the van for some breakfast and packing a lunch for my time below at the beach. Around 8 am, I was ready, and I headed back down the long trail, making it to the beach to find myself and the aforementioned British woman being the only ones around, making the lonely beach even more mystical as the sun came over the hills and slowly lit up the white walls enclosing the cove, one by one. As the sun moved higher into the sky, people slowly filtered down to the beach, making their way through the dirt trail leading down there, and a few kayaks pulled up to the beach, though it was never quite full, with no more than 50 or 75 people at one time on the two medium sized beaches. I spent some memorable moments on each side and sitting on a large rock within the archway, watching the sunlight gradually pour into the entrances on either side of the tunnel, admiring the water and rock formations all around. The unbelievably picturesque cove provided amazing views from every angle, so I found myself walking back and forth, admiring each angle of the towering walls, the sandy beach, and the islands of the surrounding water. Eventually, a Kiwi family came up on their yacht, and as his children frolicked in the sand, I spoke to the father for quite a while. We talked mostly about nothing, while I marveled at the fact that someone traveling such incredible places in a somewhat extravagant manner would have somehow been oblivious to the existence of a toothbrush and toothpaste, judging by the build-up in between his teeth. I also met a somewhat arrogant American family and an extremely friendly Kiwi family, the mother of which seemed to be able to carry on a conversation for hours at a time while watching her kids play. I heard a good deal of stories about her children and places they've visited before eventually convincing her that I really did have to go to make it to my next destination, Hot Water Beach, in time to experience it at low tide.

Hot Water Beach is only about a 25 minute drive from Cathedral Cove (after getting up the trail to the car park), but I had checked the tide schedules the night before, and I knew that I'd have to hurry to make it in time. Willy and I sped down the small roads, and I followed the arrows to the beach, arriving as many of the people in the parking lot were leaving. I didn't exactly know what I'd be looking for, but I quickly saw a large group of people crowded around one small part of the expansive beach, so I figured that they had found the phenomenon. Hot Water Beach is named for some hot springs that exist just under the beach, only able to be found within two hours of low tide, before the ocean water comes in and masks them. The water of about 150 F degrees rests just below the surface, so tourists rent shovels from the general store and dig shallow ditches with sand walls all over the beach, letting in a little bit of hot water from below and a little bit of cold ocean water to create the perfect, natural hot tub. In the right spots, just a minute or two of digging reveals the surprisingly hot water, which would be too hot for more than a second or two without the ocean water to cool it down. I arrived late, so I didn't want to rent a shovel, figuring that I might be able to experience the effect in someone else's pool that they'd left behind. A bunch of other people also had this idea, and unfortunately, most of the pools remaining in the sand were just luke warm, not as cold as the ocean, but nothing spectacular, and the other remaining pools were completely occupied by groups of two or three people, depending on the size of the small 'tubs.' Just as I was starting to leave, I saw another pool that was starting to be covered by the incoming tide, so I stepped in the area and dug down with my feet, just a few inches below the surface, and I had to immediately jump out, as the scalding water nearly burned my feet. I soon had a nice mix of hot and cold below me, allowing me to see why this is one of the most unique beaches in the world. It was hard to believe that something like that actually existed, and it was another place that must have been absolutely amazing to the first person to discover this oddity.

I spent 15 minutes relaxing my feet in the makeshift hot tub before the tides were up to my shins, and I decided it was time to move on. Having heard many minutes of the accolades of the beach's art gallery from the talkative Kiwi woman, I decided that I should stop in and at least she what she was talking about. The gallery featured some interesting pieces of jewelry, glass, drawings and table decorations, all in a unique but distinctly NZ style. My next stop up the road was the small town of Whitianga, where I found a cheap Chinese takeaway restaurant for some tasty fried noodles and beef before heading up the coast to look for a place to stay for the night. I found a motorcamp in town, but it was one of my last nights in Willy before being back in Auckland, so I was hoping to find a nice, secluded place along the coast somewhere as a fitting ending to my trip.

(Cathedral Cove from the parking lot, as the sun sets over the hill)(The tunnel connecting the two beautiful beaches of Cathedral Cove)(And now the cove from the other side of the beach)(Still on the beach, admiring the incredible views)
(A far off view of the beach and tunnel)
(A nice silhouette shot taken by the only other person on the beach at 8 in the morning)
(The crowds of Hot Water Beach, digging holes in the sand before the tide comes in)

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Rotorua - Geothermal-tastic

Out of Tongariro, I was soon passing through the logging forests of the area before finding the road on a bluff overlooking the valley and large lake of the Taupo region. The road along Lake Taupo is a beautiful stretch that hugs the massive, peaceful lake before entering the town of the same name. I stopped again at Huka Falls, a powerful waterfall created when the river narrows from a wide, slow body of water into a small chasm just a few meters wide. The blueish water rushes through the thin walls of the stretch, spilling out into the falls and the awaiting pool ten meters below. The falls are also quite tourist-friendly, so I was able to make a quick stop, walk to the falls and back, and then get on the way to Rotorua, still early that morning. After reading some reviews and recommendations, I decided that I wanted to visit Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, and one of their geysers erupts promptly at 10:15 am every day, so I was hoping to make it in time. Initially, I didn't think I had a chance to make it, kicking myself for sleeping in at the campsite instead of getting an earlier start. Passing through Taupo, I recalculated some of the travel times, and I realized it could be close, but I still didn't think I had a chance. Without a radio station most of the time, a lot of my thoughts seem to linger in my head, such as the phrase that I'm not going to make it, which soon morphed into my own personal version of Twisted Sister's song "You're Not Gonna Make It." As I sped along the road, singing the song in my head, I made a few nice passes of some of the logging trucks and slow movers, creating a bit of excitement on the road, but nothing too close. I was making great time, and the song soon changed to "You're Gonna Make It. Yes, You're Gonna Make It." I got to the turnoff for the geothermal park around 10 am, and I ran down to the entrance where I was informed that the geyser isn't actually within the park, but I quickly got my ticket, and I made it down the road to the geyser with a comforting four minutes to spare.

The Lady Knox Geyser is a small mound surrounded by an amphitheater of bleacher type seating creating a half circle around the geyser. The place was almost completely full, but I found an opening in the very front row, as I think a few other visitors thought it might be reserved seating. One of the park rangers came down and spoke about the history of the geyser just before it was scheduled to erupt. Apparently some prisoners on work duty in the isolated area found a nice hot spring in which to wash their clothes, and after a few days, they started to use this as their primary washing spot. Unbeknownst to them, the soap that they were using naturally separated the cold water from the top of the pool, releasing the trapped hot water below and sending it, along with their clothes, shooting high up into the air. Today the rangers still use a biodegradable soap to trigger the geyser, so he dropped a few slices of the soap into the two foot high mound/cone that stood around a few whitewashed rocks and the surrounding forest. Within a minute, the cone started bubbling, slowly at first with frothy water, then it started to become more fierce, and soon the water was shooting straight up in a stream about a foot wide and 40 or 50 feet high. The steaming water continued to pour out of the ground below and rain back down onto the landscape, just in front of the entranced visitors. Slowly, people began to get up and take pictures next to the geyser, and people started leaving one by one as they'd seen enough, but I remained in my seat, amazed at the power and duration of this geyser. The water continued strong for about 35 minutes before it slowed down almost back to the top of the cone, but it then had a few more bursts for the next 15 or so minutes before the water gave way to steam and small bubbles from below, and the geyser settled down for the day. Of course, my obligatory sour worms also enjoyed the show along with me, though some of them didn't last as long as the show.

I headed back down to the park to see what else the area had to offer. A few walking loops around the park revealed some interesting geothermal landscapes with some boiling water and mud pots, steaming vents and caves into the ground covered with a chalky yellow or white coating, some native forest, a few hardened water flows full of the minerals that give the area the bright colors, and the highlight of the park, the Champagne Pool. The Champagne Pool is a small lake of 76 C degree (169 F) water shrouded by steam, with a dusty white rim, bright orange shelves just below the water around the rim, and a deeper blue in the center, creating a brilliant contrast when the wind blows the steam away, revealing the surreal views. The whole area is almost unnatural with colors ranging from red, yellow, black and white on the rocks and dirt around the vents resulting from different minerals and strange yellows and greens in the pools of water around the park. Of course, the entire area emanates the pungent smell of sulfur, which you can somewhat get used to, but you hope that your clothes don't remind you later on of where you've been. This park is said to be the most scenic, varied and colorful display of the features of this highly active geothermic region, and it didn't disappoint.

My next stop was the town of Rotorua, and I decided that I'd see the super-touristy, yet entertaining, Agrodome. The Agrodome specializes in presenting the authentic NZ experience and culture in a completely unauthentic way. I signed up for the afternoon show, and I again made it just in time, so my timing for the day was working out quite well. I entered a huge circular room with wooden pews through the middle up to the stage that stood front and center. Around the edges of the stage were about 20 sheep of various sizes and breeds, just on the edge of the seats, set up perfectly for pictures and annoying pokes and jabs before the start of the show. I joined in and got right in the face of a few of them before taking pictures for others, in which one of the sheep started nibbling on a Japanese guy's jacket while I took the picture. The show started, and the hordes of Asian visitors listened intently on their earphones that featured translations of the emcee's somewhat humorous spiel. He first introduced each breed of sheep, as they climbed up on to the stage and their appropriate spot on a two tiered pyramid display, showing the name of the breed and staging them in perfect order. There were long haired sheep, short haired, black, white, with horns, with curled horns, without horns, with braided hair, and everything in between. During the show one of the sheep became a bit unruly and attempted to headbutt the speaker a few times as he pushed it away as it tried to eat the food from the others, but the chain kept the speaker just out of reach of the annoyed animal. Headbutty eventually gave up and sat down while the speech continued unabated. He then brought out another individual sheep and showed us how to shear a sheep, shaving it down to half of its apparent size while carefully managing not to cut the sensitive skin of the sheep by holding it on its back, between his legs. Then he brought a few country kids up on stage and pretended to give them free haircuts with the shearer, much to the surprise of one of them who felt his hair afterwards to make sure the budding mullet was still intact. Then, a few of the participants were asked on stage to milk a true dairy cow, along with a few jokes and some innuendo. The next gig was a "real" sheep auction in which the speaker shouted out calls and took bids from the audience for anything from raising your hand to picking your nose. A Korean woman that spoke very, very little English "won" the auction, and of course predictable hilarity ensued as they tried to communicate to her that she actually had to pay the $600 and take the sheep home with her. He finally gave up on the gag, and the show ended with a demonstration of some of the types of sheep dogs. Three types came up on stage, two barking and one just staring down the sheep, controlling them without making a sound. The dogs ran back and forth through the arena and even jumped up on the backs of the sheep and climbed the pyramid and back down a few times. We then proceeded outside to see his Strong Eye dog (a NZ specialty breed of dog trained not to bark) round up a group of sheep by listening to his instructions and whistles and herding them by just looking at them and circling around back and forth to guide them where he wanted them to go. The show was, as predicted, a bit cheesy, but a great way to get a close up view of usually wary sheep. On the way out, I saw the hill in which the Zorb operates - a huge soft plastic ball that rolls down a gentle, grassy hill with a person or two in the smaller, clear circle inside the outer ball. This is basically like a human hamster ball, and it looked interesting, but it would be over quite quickly and didn't seem to be worth the money.

Being late evening, I was ready for dinner, so I made the tough choice between an adjoining Thai and Indian restaurant. As it turns out, I think I made the right decision and had an incredible Indian dinner, complete with curry, rice and naan (bread). Each and every flavour of the meal was excellent, and I was completely stuffed after finishing the last remaining crumb that graced my plate. By now, the sun had set and darkness was upon me, so I set off to find a place to camp for the night, hoping that the road around the North side of the lake would be as isolated as it looked on the map, providing a nice, quiet place to stay, out of the way of the tourists and residents alike. I headed up the road, but my weak headlights and the lack of any sort of street lights made it hard to find any suitable looking locations. I avoided a few cars that tailgated me as I looked for a little pullout in the most random of places as the road wound along the hill and lake below. Eventually, nearing the top of one of the larger hills, I knew there would be at least a little pullout (as there always is when they cut these roads into the sides of the hills), and I found a semblance of what I was looking for. One of the road posts that was supposed to keep people on the road had been run over a few times, allowing me to enter the small grassy arc on the inside of the turn. Being almost pitch black, I couldn't really tell what I was driving into, but it looked good enough, especially considering my other options. The grassy patch felt stable enough, so I pulled forwards and back, trying to find a somewhat flat spot to stay for the night. I reduced the slant as much as possible by parking with the wheels on a tiny little mound that I had felt, and then I climbed through the middle seat and bars into the back, not wanting to step outside in what could be mud, water or anything else. It wasn't quite comfortable having to sleep pushed up into the back corner of the van due to the angle, but it wasn't too bad, and I woke up to a decent view of Rotorua across the lake from me. Another nice breakfast of Coco Krispies and Muesli ensued, and then I was off, making a brief stop at a town on the way called Okere Falls. I figured if the town was named after a waterfall, and with my affinity for them, I should at least stop and see what all the fuss is about. A short walk through the green bush led me to a few different waterfalls - pleasant, but definitely not warranting a trip to the town just to see them. Soon, I was back on the road, heading North through kiwi fruit country, including Te Puke, the kiwi fruit capital of the world, or so they claim. Driving through the town, with my wandering, radio-less mind, I keep thinking of the classic Deep Thought by Jack Handy where he says "Marta was offended that I used the word puke. But to me, that's what her dinner tasted like." (or something to that effect)

(Huka Falls)(The Lady Knox Geyser, still going after 55 minutes and the crowds had moved on)(One of the colorful pools of Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland)(The colors of the Champagne Pool)(The pyramid of sheep and the Agrodome. Note the sheep dogs resting on top of the sheep)(Super close-up)(The sheep are so accustomed to people that you can get right up next to them...that and the chains)(Another super close-up of the same lovable sheep)

New Plymouth? Nope. Tongariro Again.

From Wellington, I hugged the Western coast of the island, heading North in the direction of New Plymouth and the Mt. Taranaki, the Mt. Fuji look-alike that I missed during my first sojourn on the North Island. The trouble is that this coast is often shrouded in clouds, blocking out the majestic views of the mountain that dominates the area (which in Maori legend was said to have been alongside the central island volcanoes before a dispute and losing his love, thus fleeing to the coast to be alone). As I moved further North, though, the skies grew a bit cloudy, creating some doubts as to whether I'd even be able to see the mountain and main reason for visiting the area. At the junction of two of the main freeways, I pulled off to get a weather report, and I found that a trip to the volcano would be more or less fruitless, so I took the winding road heading North from Wanganui to Tongariro. The quiet road followed along the scenic Wanganui road before heading up into the characteristic green, rolling hills with groves of trees sprouting randomly from the grasslands. Much of the area had been affected by a volcanic mudslide and other strong rains and washouts, so there were a few areas where the road was down to one lane, as the former lane had followed the water down the side of the steep hills. The drive was beautiful, though, passing in and out of desolate, yet lush valleys, and a few of the trees are starting to change colors to nice shades of yellow and light green. Additionally, the clouds that had scared me away from New Plymouth turned to puffy, bright white shapes set in contrast with the bright, clear blue sky and the never-ending green landscapes ahead and behind me, enticing me to more than a few precarious stops for some photos.

A few hours later, I arrived back in the town of National Park, the gateway to Tongariro National Park and that one day walk across the stark volcanic landscape that I had completed a month earlier. I checked out the three restaurants in town, but they were either too expensive and bland or not open (the pizza/burger place), so I had to change my dinner plans a bit. With some of the obligatory backpacker pasta and sauce in my van, I decided to stop back in the hostel where I had stayed before. I knew the place well from staying there two nights, so I headed straight for the kitchen and cooked a nice spaghetti dinner before washing my dishes and discretely making my way back out of the place. Dusk was beginning to set, and I was anxious to find a place along the road to the park before darkness came. Not far down the road, I found a DOC (Dept. of Conservation) campsite, which is not a bad deal at $4 a night, so I opted for a safe pullout instead of "freedom camping" along the side of the road, and I never mind giving money to the park organizations that make my trips so enjoyable. I had also just passed a cute kiwi crossing sign with a kiwi silhouette, so I was hoping that I might have a kiwi sighting around the van, too. (Speaking of that, my earlier possible kiwi sighting in Hokitika turned out to be a weka, another flightless NZ bird - I researched this in the Wellington museum) I was also happy to have a safe place to stay as the rain poured down for most of the night, passing by early in the morning as the sun came up, and I began another day on the road. The current weather also made me realize how lucky I was the first time in the area, as I had a perfectly clear, wonderful day for my hike over the volcanoes, which are quite fickle and walkers are warned about how quickly the weather can turn bad, making the walk miserable and, more importantly, obscuring the sweeping views of the peaks and craters all around. I've had a few days of rain here and there, but for my whole trip, I've been extremely fortunate that the Weather Gods (or God, depending on your persuasion) have been with me. The temperatures have been perfect, and I've experienced wonderful days in the places that are known for their moody, capricious climates.

Passing through the center of the island, I'd soon be heading back up to Taupo, and then over to Rotorua, the tourist capital of the North Island. I'm not ecstatic over the prospect of the tourist mecca, but it is also one of those must-see sort of places here, so I'm planning a quick stopover in the place.

(The idyllic road from Wanganui to Tongariro)(A green, pointy valley along the road)(A picturesque row of some of my favorite types of trees in NZ, though I still don't know what they're called)

Monday, April 23, 2007

See Wellington Again for the First Time

As a veteran of the North Island, I made my way through town like I owned the place, driving right off the ferry along the waterway back to the same hostel where I was during my trip on the way South, sitting up on the foothills of the ridge overlooking the city. I parked on the street and made my way up the steep driveway and was happy to see that the hostel had availability for the night, in addition to the worker recognizing me from earlier, despite the unfettered growth of my beard during the time. After getting my key, I wasn't looking forward to the parking escapade that surely awaited me, as the parking lot up the steep one lane driveway behind the hostel was quite tight even in my rental car the first time I was there. Willy and I crept up the hill to find the tiny gravel lot just as packed in and double parked as before. There was a tiny spot in the last corner, partially blocked by a Honda Prelude that took a little too much space in its own parking spot. I tried and tried to squeeze in, brushing the trees and bushes forming the border of the spot, but I found that the van was basically touching the bumper of the Prelude with more to go, so I had to delicately back out of the spot exactly as I came in, barely avoiding the Prelude and the cars parked closely behind me. I was still facing forward in the dead end lot, so I hoped to be able to back out to one half spot to help me turn around and head back down to the street, but another van pulled in and didn't seem to understand my intentions, so the not-so-compassionate Brits just double parked alongside another car, making my job even tougher, while a compact car jumped into the tiny spot I was hoping to use as a back-in point, so my job immediately got much more difficult. On a slant with about the width of two of my vans, I had to maneuver my way through a ten or fifteen point turn (honestly), as I did my best Austin Powers impression. I turned the wheel hard one direction, released the clutch, hit the gas as to not roll back into the cars behind me, popped forward right up to the car in front, turned the non-power steering wheel hard the other way before finding reverse and repeating the process over and over, barely making any progress but not left with any other choice considering the newcomers to the parking lot. A series of tight turns and turning the stiff wheel back and forth ensued, and I finally had the van facing back to the exit, with only one moment in which I truly used the bumper against the van behind me, but it was no more than a tap, so there was no damage. About to descend to the street, another small van came up the hill, so I had to do a few more deft moves to allow her in, though I warned her that there were no spots. As she finally got past, she decided to heed my advice and slowly and carefully backed down the narrow hill, swerving back and forth, inches from the fencing and concrete wall. I found a spot on the street that would be acceptable until 8 am the next morning, when the parking enforcement began again, but I was able to get up in time to move it back up the hill to a few vacated spots in the morning.

On the way from the ferry, I had also noticed a sign advertising a rugby match the next night, so I figured I'd stay in Wellington an extra day to experience such a telling part of the Kiwi culture. In the morning, I made the 45-50 minute walk from one side of the city to the other from my hostel to the stadium to buy tickets and secure my spot in the spectacle. On the way back to town, I stopped again at Te Papa Museum, the natural history museum with free admission featuring flora, fauna, art, culture, geography and other facts and displays about the country. Being six stories tall, I had more time to explore the exhibits through which I had to rush the first time around, experiencing the feeling of being in a house during a large earthquake, reading about the invasion of introduced pests and trees, the clear-cutting of the native forests and being disappointed to find that I am just a centimeter or so too tall for the virtual bungy machine that simulates the view and weightlessness of the adventure in a small cage that turns and spins upside down to the delight of the queue of children.

Basically, though, my day was spent anticipating the rugby match, since I'd been really hoping that I'd be able to find a match during my stay here. The league, the Super 14, consists of 14 teams from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, so I'd be seeing the Wellington Hurricanes against the Cheetahs of South Africa, Bloemfontein, I think. I got a quick dinner at the hostel and hit the long road back to the stadium, arriving about 20 minutes before the 7:30 kickoff. The bright stadium lights and thick crowds guided me as I got closer and closer before entering to the sights and sounds of djs pumping out loud dance music, a few dancers on stilts in the local black and yellow color scheme, and a mass of people heading in every possible direction. I found my seats easily, though I was quite tempted by the stadium food, which is surprisingly not badly priced as you see in US sporting events. Pies, "American" hot dogs, fries and everything else were about the same price as they'd be outside the stadium, but I was able to resist thanks to a massive plate of spaghetti earlier. The beers are also available in four packs, saving the drunken fan from multiple trips to the concession stand during the same play, so I found that humorous. Back in my seat, the shining lights illuminated the perfectly manicured green field below me, situated in the corner of the stadium, not too far up from the pitch. I watched the two teams warm up and head to the locker rooms before returning to a bit of antiquated stadium rock and cheers from the crowd, though the arena ended up being only about 2/3 full, since these teams are the collective definition of mediocrity in the league right now. I must admit that I didn't know every single rule or call of the game, but I knew more than enough to watch attentively and really enjoy the match.

The scoring started off evenly, but soon the Hurricanes began to pull away, aided by an interception and try by the owner of one of the most amazing mullets since the times of Braveheart, but I don't think many people would have the gall to question his haircut, as this player was probably about 6'5" and 230 pounds. Of course, players' sizes varied according to their positions, but the players were all huge and tough, making some gigantic hits and tackles with no padding, which predictably resulted in a few injured players laying dazed on the ground for a few seconds before "toughening up" and returning to play. The last play of the match was a very long individual run - a 70-something meter try, which is quite rare from what I've seen, so that was a nice ending, as the home team took the match 37-15, and watched a few of the players sign autographs and greet the fans before I boarded the shuttle home with a few obnoxious, drunk fans and some of the others trying to avoid them. The whole experience was a good one, allowing a glimpse into some true Kiwi experiences (not to be confused with the annoying green tourist bus, the Kiwi Experience).

The next morning, I checked out of the hostel after two days in the capital city, and I headed North, immediately being amused by a few of the deluxe kennels along the main road, with endearing cartoon cats advertising their own "cattery", which is the feline only version of a kennel. Doggeries were surprisingly nowhere to be found, though.

(The opening of the match between the Hurricanes and the Cheetahs)(The Hurricanes, in yellow, attempt to stop the Cheetahs with just meters to spare)

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Marlborough Sounds and the End of the South Island

I spent another uneventful day in Motueka with mundane tasks like grocery shopping and doing laundry, but the larger grocery store once again gave me the opportunity to stock up on some rare items in these parts, including some more taco shells and a weak attempt at a meat substitute. Trying to better my previous attempt at ground beef with the can of mince soup, I went with a wheat gluten can that looked promising, based on the picture of the formidable hamburger on the outside of the can. I decided to spend the night back at the same motor camp just South of Motueka where I had stayed in previous nights, so I quickly found my same spot and began the "feast." I found the can opener to pop open the gluten/meat, and I quickly started to question my earlier judgment. The initial smell and look of the light brown clump inside reminded me very, very much of canned dog food, so that wasn't a great start. Getting over the fake meat smell, I dug in to the can and found it to be an odd concoction of somewhat stringy, dry material, so I started scooping away, trying to avoid thinking about the dog food connection too much. Fortunately, I did have another jar of taco sauce, so I thoroughly mixed the two, and it added some flavor and wetness to the gluten, though it was still not the taste that I've been craving. Along with another head of cabbage and the taco shells, it served for two nights of six tacos each, tasting good enough and offering a change from the standard here in New Zealand. So, with the meatless, guiltless energy provided by the gluten, I was on the road again, heading back East across the Northern coastline of the South Island.

I drove back through Havelock, the picturesque, tiny town that sits on a deep green inlet, eventually making its way back out to the Tasman Sea. After a few detours and missed road signs, I passed the town, turned around and finally found the gateway to the sounds of the area, a network of smaller paved and unpaved roads that hug the twists and turns of the sounds and peninsulas that give the area its name. (The Sounds part, not Marlborough - that's British or something) Bending around the tight turns, the road follows the contours of the water, making its way through the side of the verdant forest (partial native, partially pine trees planted for logging) about 50 feet up from somewhat steep, wooded dropoffs down to the water. It is obviously slow going for a bigger vehicle like Willy, but the views are more than enough incentive to take your time and just enjoy the ride ahead. One of the first bed and breakfast hotels that I saw was named The Sounds of Silence, so I of course started singing the song in my head, but I also realized that there were so few cars or anything else around the roads that it was a pretty accurate name for the place. This was away from the main tourist routes, passing by the occasional summer home of well off Kiwis living in other parts during the rest of the year. Prompted by the sign indicating a luxurious hotel down a gravel road, I made my way down to Te Mahia Bay which was a secluded group of coves covered by overhanging ferns and pines, revealing hints of the bright green water and tiny beach below. Following a quick lunch on the serene pier, I moved further down the Kenepuru Sound, stopping around most of the bends for the marvelous views all around. The seemingly endless inlets continued for about three hours before I came to the end of the inlet (and pretty much the paved road) at Kenepuru Head, where I saw a few of the native pukeko birds, which are a navy blue bird with long legs and short, bright red beaks.

At the turnaround, I headed back to an ideal spot that I'd noted along the way. It was a tiny pullout on the edge of the hill around one curve, just wide enough and long enough for Willy to back in between two trees and not hang off the cliff below or stick out into the road, and it had obviously been used for camping before, as you could see hints of tire tracks. The spot was ideal and secluded - a nice place for the second half of my tacos and a peaceful sleep. The overhanging clouds during the evening couldn't hold, and the rain poured down during the night, pummeling the van's roof with large drops filtering down through the branches of the large tree canopy above me. I was also happy that the ground below me was covered with a bit of grass, so that I didn't have to worry about waking up stuck in a mud puddle or anything like that.

The next morning I took my time getting up, enjoying the solitude, silence and beauty of the area before heading to the NE corner of the island for Picton, the quaint harbor town serving as the port for the ferries in between the two islands. A great overhead view of the town was afforded by a few revealing bends in the road, though slightly disrupted by a smaller port for the logging trucks, filled with piles and piles of huge pine trunks. Hearing that the ferry ride was quite scenic, I decided to book one of the midday crossings to get good views of the other sounds that we traversed before getting back to Wellington. I also had to shop around to find the cheapest rate for me and Willy, since the cost of bringing a car across is fairly expensive (about $140 for the two of us). This is no ordinary ferry ride, though. Our ship, courtesy of InterIsland, resembled a cruise ship, with ten stories of parking decks, children's playrooms, movie theater, lounges, bars, restaurants, tvs, and a few observation decks on top. I parked my van in the corner of the parking rows and made my way up to the top just in time to see the behemoth boat quietly drifting away from the dock and the town of Picton. The mix of fluffy white clouds and bright blue sky provided a perfect backdrop for the town as we made our way into the complex system of islands and inlets of green water, surrounded mostly by untouched dark green hills of pine and birch, with a few bare hillsides that had been recently cleared by the logging companies. The brochures all advertise this journey as a destination in and of itself, and it really was a great experience. Taking in all of the views and potential pictures, I hung out mostly on the top deck despite being quite cold in my short sleeved shirt as every around me bundled up in scarves and winter jackets to protect themselves from the strong wind coming off the boat and water, but it is forbidden to return to your car during the ride, so I just had to think warm thoughts and concentrate on the views. An hour into the ride, we finally sighted the open sea for the crossing to the North Island, so I headed below deck to watch a bit of the kids' magic show that proved to be too juvenile for even me (some may have thought that impossible), and then I took in a rugby match on tv before starting to feel the effects of the rougher sea and swaying of the boat. I went back and forth for some fresh air and kept being tempted by the smells of the fries, Indian food and pies from the cafeteria, so I finally gave in and purchased some fries, justifying them by saying that the greasy, salty food would settle my stomach. I don't know if it worked, but I didn't feel any worse, and they sure tasted good. Basically, I think we soon entered the sheltered waters of the bays of the North Island, so the hard part was past, and we curled around the lighthouses, rocks and hills to reveal the relative sprawl of Wellington's buildings and adjoining houses along the mountain ranges that back the city. Soon we were back on the dock, and Willy and I made our departure, heading for the same hostel that I stayed in a few weeks before.

(The sunrise just outside of Motueka on my last morning in the area)(Green water and greenery surrounding the road in Kenepuru Sound)(The light breaking through the clouds in early morning)(Leaving Picton on the luxurious ferry ride)(The view of the winding coastline and inlets of Marlborough Sounds from the boat)

Monday, April 9, 2007

Abel Tasman National Park - hike, kayak, etc

Along the NW coast of the South Island lies the amazingly beautiful Abel Tasman National Park, so the park turned out to be my next destination, after a brief stop in Nelson and driving through the Green Shell Mussel Capital of the World in Havelock. (I also stopped in and used the internet cafe inside the McDonalds in Nelson, but there wasn't much else significant in the nice-looking city.) I arrived in Motueka early one morning and stopped at the visitor information site to try to make some plans for my next few days and foray into the park. Having missed the operations for that day and making a few decisions based on the weather forecast that was supposed to clear up in the next day or so, I spent the day driving the windy, steep road from the South end of the park to the North, over a decent sized pass, covered in pine trees, with a few native and imported bushes strewn about. As I drove through the last small town, I entered the park and eventually ended up on a small, bumpy, dusty dirt road headed towards the scenic inlet of Awaroa, which I had seen on a few postcards. I made a few blind turns, stream crossings of foot or two of water (Willy also turns out to be amphibious), and then I ended up at the car park at the end of the road, realizing that my timing wasn't quite ideal. With the tide being high, I could basically see the back side of the inlet from the trail, though it wasn't much to see, and the rest of the trail, beach and everything else that you'd actually care to see was tantalizingly out of reach. So, I headed back on the road after my half-hour detour, and I was able to find another gravel turnoff towards Totaranui, a larger, less capricious beach at the end of one of the other trails. This beach proved worth the drive, as I got out of the car just feet away from the sparkling golden sands of the wide beach, lined with thick greenery on one side and the clear green water on the other. I walked up and down the beach, admiring the scenery, before heading back to the car, the main town, and my sour worms, including one interesting encounter with another car traveling in the middle of the narrow road along a blind turn, as we both swerved back to our sides with just a bit of room to spare, though it wasn't quite a high speed incident.

The next morning, I got up early and headed back to town for my shuttle ride up to the start of the Abel Tasman Coastal Track, a three to five day walk along the coast, through the bush, stopping at most of the major beaches and inlets of the stunning park. While in town, I had rented a cheap tent and made some arrangements (since the covered huts were fully booked for Easter, I had to get a campsite), and then I was on my way. The weather for the day was supposed to be perfect, but the day started out dark and dreary, so I waited at the trailhead for about an hour before starting out, hoping the clouds would clear away before getting to any of the major attractions. As I had hoped, just an hour or two after departing along the walkway across the bay and up into the trees, the clouds began to disappear as the sun made its way through, revealing some gorgeous views. Along almost every inlet is a small, secluded beach, often populated with a few kayakers or hikers taking breaks or even pitching a tent for the night. The beaches and water in this area are unbelievable, especially given our location. The bright, golden sands and superbly clear, green tinted water look like something out of a tropical getaway, seeming unreal at a latitude so far South. The beaches, some wide, some narrow, are all backed by thick, native forests that have been tended and replanted since the opening of the park in 1942, and there are very few signs of development within the park, though brightly colored kayaks are easy to spot in the green water, as this is one of the key attractions of the park.

My hiking trip first took me to the beautiful beaches of Appletree, Couquille, Stilwell, and Akersten Bays before the Watering Cove and the ever-popular Anchorage, a huge stretch of sand in a crescent shaped bay, seen in many of the postcards of the area. When I arrived, I found the pleasant looking hut and a few day trippers playing along the beach, and I wished that I could simply stay there for the night, as my pack was beginning to wear on my shoulders, and I knew that I still had a long way to go, but I still took the time to admire the incredible beach and translucent water. Again, due to the tides, I had to take the long way around the bay, back up into the forest and around the river mouth, instead of simply crossing the sandbar, so that added an hour and a few miles to my trip. After Anchorage, I saw very few people, and I began to pick up the pace to make up some time, since I'd been stopping at nearly every beach and overlook that I saw, not being able to fight the allure of the splendid vistas. My next main stop was Torrent Bay where a few locals have holiday homes, and I ended up talking for about 10 minutes to some very inquisitive kids asking where I was going, where I was from, if I walked from the United States and other relevant questions. I couldn't stay too long, though, as I had to get to camp before dark. With about an hour to go, having hiked 6.5 hours, I was passed on a steep uphill by a very fast moving jogger, apparently on an evening run from Torrent Bay, but he inspired me, so despite my heavy pack and tired legs, I managed a few minutes of running through the woods, again making up some time and exerting some pent-up energy, though running with a hiking pack is quite hard on the knees. I came across another large swinging bridge over the river below, stopped at one last lookout, and I finally arrived at Bark Bay, my home for the night. I had walked with my heavy pack (about 30 lbs - the rental tent wasn't the most high-tech or lightest option around) for nearly eight hours for a total of around 25 km (15 miles for those of you who prefer measuring systems that don't make sense), so I felt good about my long day and indulged in the hearty dinner of an apple, orange and a bunch of muesli/trail mix. I got the tropical blend muesli this time with dried bananas, pineapple and papaya, and it is so good. I quickly set up my tent at the last remaining spot as dusk fell, and then I was off to sleep, trying not to be annoyed by the incessant chatter of the Japanese couple next to me and the Germans on my other side, though I had to remind myself that I was going to bed a bit early.

After a completely uncomfortable night in the tent, I woke up early and headed out to the beach for my muesli breakfast and to wait for my kayak trip for the day. Later in the morning, the water taxis and kayaks arrived where I met my guide and my kayaking partner for the day, Shauna, and we were instructed on a few things, then we set sail...set paddle, whatever. We decided that I'd take the front of the kayak and Shauna would take the back, as we'd both "kayaked" before, and it really didn't matter that much...So, she was in charge of steering with the rudder, and that didn't seem to be the right decision. For some reason, she would continually oversteer and then overcorrect and oversteer and repeat. I figured she'd work out the kinks as we went along and wouldn't waste so much energy trying to correct it and point us in the right direction, but that didn't seem to happen, as we zig-zagged our way around the park. Joined by our guide, it was the two of us in a kayak and an Israeli couple in the other two person kayak. We were fortunate to have a very calm day on the water, making our paddling a bit easier. Our first stop was Pinnacle Rock, where we saw a few seals playing in the water just beside our kayaks and laying on the rocks. Next, we started on the long stretch of amazing beaches, making a lunch stop at Te Pukatea, one of the most pictured beaches of the park. Just a short trip into the woods, we found a great lookout over the half-moon bay and sparkling water. We enjoyed a nice lunch with a sandwich some juice and a huge blueberry muffin (one and a half for me), and then we were back on the water, making our way down. Shauna and I gladly switched seats, and I got to steer, though the pedals were way too short, so it was not at all comfortable, and the pedals had been rigged to only work comfortably for shorter people, so I ended up having to contort my foot around it for part of the way, until we could find another guide to help us get it back to normal.

We cruised the green water, stopping at beach after beach and entering a hidden sea cave for a few hours, tiring us out, passing through the Mad Mile (named for the strong currents that didn't affect us too much), Astrolab Roadstead and other parts on the way back to Marahau and the start of the park. The day passed by quickly as our eyes were transfixed on the incredible scenery both on land and in the water around us, and our guide told us some stories of the park, its inception, flora and fauna and other random facts. This was also his last day as a guide, so we tried to make it memorable for him by unintentionally ramming his boat a few times and a few other annoying things. Amazingly, he was sick of his job in paradise, which points to Brian Tschida's theory of not working in an industry you love, as even the best jobs can become tiring and old, thus ruining that aspect of your life, though I think his level of dissatisfaction kayaking through the blue-green water of the park, alongside the golden beaches and thick forest, along with the occasional seal following nearby isn't quite the corporate burnout that people associate with being tired of one's job, so he doesn't get too much sympathy. On a positive note, he said that Americans are actually the only nationality with which he hasn't had a bad experience, so well done USA! On our way back to being loved by the world...

The day ended with us pulling back into the harbor after about 6 hours on the water, boarding the bus and coming back into town. I treated myself to a nice Thai noodle dish at the local restaurant and decided to make it really spicy, as I continued to add more and more pepper seeds before actually tasting it. It was quite spicy, but good, and of course I had to go get a double scoop of ice cream to cool down, along with some sour worms for post dessert...not a bad combo. Soon, I'll be heading back to the North Island and hoping to sell Willy, so we'll see how that works out.

(The first golden beach at Totaranui)

(Amazing water at Totaranui)

(One of the tantalizing views of my hike with the beaches and water through the trees)

(The trail moved along the beach at Anchorage, one of the popular stops)

(An aerial view of Anchorage, taking the high tide route around the estuary)

(The other kayaks at the beach of Bark Bay, where I slept for the night)

(The glassy water, Pinnacle Rock, and our guide in his kayak)

(Te Pukatea beach from the Pitt Head lookout, showing off the beautiful water and beaches)

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