Monday, September 28, 2015

Travel Magic - North Island, New Zealand: Part 2

"It is only until you get out of your comfort zone that you truly know what you are capable of." - Vignesh, fellow Meetup tramper in Wellington

The Pinnacles, Coromandel Pennisula
    This post covers our North Island trip from February 2nd -June 1st, 2015
    Anyone who has traveled hard experienced some form of travel magic. Travel magic is the term I use for moments that are so incredibly lucky to have happened. Maybe it was meeting the right people, the weather was gorgeous when you needed it, or a moment you thought was bad turned out to be advantageous. I know these moments well from past travels, but I still find myself surprised and humbled when they happen.

    From finding ourselves at a Maori food festival to meeting the bandmate of a personal musical idol, to being put on the guest list to see that idol perform in Auckland, to meeting an amazing couple who invited us to a ukulele concert on their farm, to these folks becoming great friends and introducing us to further friends further along in our travels. This is just one example of luck infiltrating our experience here in New Zealand and it never ceases to amaze me how incredible people can be. 

    Given I have only posted one blog about this trip and I am extremely behind on updating, I will post a few bits at a time, each entry with a few stories from the things we have done. 
The North Island Journey

    It would not be a proper visit to New Zealand unless you have gotten a chance to bask in the light of glow worms. The species of glow worms here are only found in New Zealand, despite there being glow insects else where, like Australia. These worms are not worms, but larvae. They only grow up to about an inch long over the course of 9 months. They cast down fine threads off their bodies that have sticky droplets on them which are meant to catch insects and flies that they eat. They glow brighter the hungrier they are. The Waitomo Caves have some of the best collection of these worms in the whole country, even though you can find them just about anywhere dark near water. When you illuminate the walls of these caves with a torch it looks like there is long fine hair everywhere, with evenly spaced tiny dew drops on each one. Turn off the lights and you are rewarded with something reminiscent of the night sky, only the tiny dots of light have a blue color to them. When these young little glow kids decide to become adults, they turn into flies that only live for a few days. With no mouth or digestive system, having gotten all their eating on as an adorable larvae, their only job now is to get funky and make more little glow babies. Ironically, I bet many of them fly into their kid's silk thread traps and become food for the next generation. Oh nature, you're so beautiful.

   The adventure I went on involved a repel into one of the caves that make up the Waitomo system, some horsing around in water, crawling through cave walls, and a rock climb out. I enjoy caves a lot, so the experience over all was pretty wonderful.

John makes friends everywhere he goes - Waitomo Caves glow worm adventure

   Coromandel Pennisula is a hot spot for Auckland vacationers as well as us foreign folk. This area is covered in Pohutukawa trees (aka the Christmas tree) that bloom incredible ruby red flowers in December. We missed the peak of their blooms, but relived the season by being pummeled with art and photos in ever shop we visited. Our hike up the Pinnacles was our first experience in the amazing huts that the Department of Conservation (DOC) have in their parks. This concept is incredible. You have the choice to tent camp, they have designated camp sites in all parks, but they also have these rustic huts that range in size, capacity, and services (like a stove or wood for heat) that cost between $5 and a ridiculous $54 a night (Fiordlands man, paying loads to sleep right next to a snoring dude). We ended up in the hut for the Pinnacles walk without realizing this was the mother of all huts with the ability to accommodate 88 people! Yes it does get completely full in the summers on weekends. It had a huge kitchen with supplies for cooking and stoves. No other hut was as massive or luxurious as this one, but the charm of each one makes you want to hike places just for the hut alone. Luckily there were only a few of us taking over the 88 person space, and after the grueling steep elevation hike to get there were happy to relax and go to sleep early.

    The following morning we got up before sunrise and walked in the dark towards the summit. I love night hiking. There is just something about it that is so peaceful and mesmorizing. When it is close to sunrise like we were, the sky is not pitch black, but shows signs of the sun determined to rise but not quite close enough causing the surrounding mountains to become humbling silhouettes poised around you. Your breath catches in the light of your head lamp reminding you that it is quite cold, even though you're sweating from the ridiculous amounts of stairs, turned ladders, turned rock climbing to get to this peak.

    Once there, the clouds moved in and decided to hang out and block our view. We waited in the cold, finding nooks in the rocks to sit until finally, after over an hour, the sun's warmth won and melted the clouds away rewarding our patience with gorgeous rock faces and the ocean beyond. 

   We spent some time in the Karangahake Gorge, also in the Coromandel, exploring mines, bridges, tunnels, and a choo choo. The gorge was pretty cool, but what I took away the most was this train tunnel over a half mile long that you could walk through. The acoustics were incredible. Sounds bounced off the walls for up to ten seconds. That's a very long time for an echo. So, being a musician and loving acoustics I sang out multiple notes consecutively and listened as the tunnel sang back to me a choir of sound. I made a three note chord, which continued to ring for a few seconds after I stopped singing. For a music nerd, that was pretty cool.  
Karangahake Gorge

A window in a mine in Karangahake Gorge

Very long tunnel

  Beach in Coromandel

     No trip to New Zealand is ever complete without the obligatory visit to Hobbiton. You know, where the hobbits live? The Shire? We were on the fence about going. It was spendy and touristy, but what the hell, looks cool in the movies, probably cool in real life right? Actually yes, it was pretty cool in real life. They do an amazing job of keeping this place looking like a paradise we all want to live in. The grass is green and kempt (while the surrounding hills are brown from drought), the trees look perfect (one is actually fake cause, you know, movies), and the garden produces real vegetables that look healthy and delicious. To add to the affect of perfectness there were freakin' butterflies EVERYWHERE. Genuine fairy tale land here. I actually got a little sad that this place wasn't real. It needs to be real!
    We were taken on a tour through the area being shown 44 hobbit doors of all sizes. Different ones were used depending on if you were filming a hobbit or a Gandolf. Some have storage behind the doors, others had nothing. We cross a perfect lake on a perfect bridge with a fake Smaug chillin in the tall grass and head to the Green Dragon Inn to have a Hobbiton beer (part of the tour). I, of course, befriend the pub cat Pickles. Everyone wanted her affections, I am the only one who got it. (I fed her some muffin for that lovin). I bought a few of those beers for gifts. One successfully made it across the sea, one successfully made it into our bellies, and the third gift exploded in the car. :( Expensive beer with the worse quality bottling. Sorry Sean Brown. 
Bilbo's House with the perfect fake tree behind it. 

    Rotor-Vegas... a reference the ever popular adventure city tourist overload called Rotorua. We were pretty sick the whole time we were here, but we did manage to soak in a fake hot pool (despite there being real ones everywhere else, the whole area is built over thermal pools). I was pretty excited for an opportunity to visit the living Maori village with the 2nd longest New Zealand name: Tewhakarewarewatangaoteopetauaawahiao which means "The gathering place for the war parites of Wahiao." We learned about their culture, how they utilized the thermal pools, ate thermal pool cooked corn, and enjoyed a haka.  

Most of getting around New Zealand pertains to a lot of driving. The road trips were half the experience seeing the country side and falling in love with the geological formations of this amazing little country. Then you have Mt. Taranaki, the tall volcano that seems completely out of place to all the low lying features around it. She's almost too perfect in shape in my opinion, and provided an amazing area part way up to sleep in our van, high above the tiny towns below. Two nights in a row I marveled over the rise of what looked like a harvest moon to the East. She looked comically gigantic as the orange orb breached the horizon. I didn't have my fancy camera to take photos of this, but it will be a memory etched in my brain. The first night I was frightened before my brain pieced together what I was seeing. Not an alien, just nature. When we woke to the morning sun, the towering point of Taranaki commanded the view to the west.
The bush around Mt. Taranaki
Most incredibly built trails and bridges I have ever seen. 
Good morning Mt. Taranaki!
Somewhere on the Lost Highway
Borrowed a bike in Whanganui, went for a ride, found a piano. My two loves.

Smallest Republic?

Found an extra for the Lord of the Rings! I think I pissed him off. Note the faces in his loin clothe. eeewww.

That's all for now folks, I will post a few more later for those still interested in reading about my tales!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015



   It has been hard to write without a computer to travel with, but for those dying to hear about the adventures I will do my best to update. (Also, blogger changed how it operates after I left the States and it is absolutely horrible to do the blog the way I had been, I have no idea why the white backdrop is there or the different colors of font. It wrote everything on my tablet and copy/pasted it to here. I wish I had been working with Wordpress like everyone else. Bare with me everyone.)
    Hawaii was incredible, if more for seeing old Portland friends than the amazing island itself. We went diving with sharks and sea turtles, hiked through a smoking volcano, and sacrificed a special ring to the spirits at Waipio Valley. Australia was initially a test in patience of traveling with strangers, a whole lot of beach camping (thank you showers and free barbies everywhere), and an overdue reunion with friends I met on a trail in Glacier National Park. From the deafening sounds of the lorakeets returning to their nesting trees at dusk and the impressively large fruit bats with their dangerously acidic poo starting their fruit hunt (also at dusk), to the games played at night under the watchful eye of the adorable and brave possum (possums are cute as buttons down under with their big ears and furry tails) we happily enjoyed getting used to being some place new with all its surprises.
Diving with Kim and Carrie in Hawai'i, the amazing hosts and friend from Portland
Palm Beach, Australia
Rental bikes in Brisbane, Australia

   But it is New Zealand that we left the U.S. for, the country we both dreamed of visiting for many years, and the place we were most excited for. I knew I would love it here, but I am surprised by how I am continually finding myself in awe, from the scenery to the kindness of the locals. I feel like a child exploring the world for the first time. The simplest things make me giddy, from plums of butterflies flowing out of the tall grass as I walk, to the impressive chorus of the cicadas, to snails crawling on my finger, to playing with the warrior-like praying mantis both large and miniature. As you can tell I am quite drawn to the fauna of the countries. Maybe I was a naturalist in another life. 
Downtown Auckland view from Mt Eden, a dormant volcano, where we stayed. Auckland is built on 50 volcanoes, and not all are dormant

Alex, our new sleeper van
  We arrived in Auckland and spent a few days familiarizing ourselves to the new culture. We bought a, van which was a bit rushed and stressful. We had a call on how much you can take out of the ATM in a day, and after a rat race of bank visits we found a teller, Alex, that worked magic and got us our money. All that work for this one van and by the end of the day after a simple visit to the post office to switch over registration (much easier and cheaper than the states), we owned a van. We named it Alex after the bank teller.

  We headed North to a place we could snorkel, excited for the adventure that awaits in our home on wheels. We had no clue where to stay or an itinerary which was one of this mistakes that leads to being a great learning experience, though at the time we were stressed. We find out after our vehicle purchase that it is illegal to sleep in it anywhere except camp spots or holiday parks which you have to pay for. That first night out of Auckland was a crash course in learning what apps we could use,  how expensive holiday parks are (almost the same as a hostel and you're in your van), and that knowing where you're going matters greatly. We found an app that had free camping spots for "self contained vehicles" but it wasn't near the spot we wanted to be the next day. However, we were just happy to be somewhere. It was just a parking lot with some motor homes taking advantage of the free overnighting too. The following day we snorkeled, had blue fishies nipple our suits and toes and stalk us a bit. We cowered in the shade for it was ridiculously hot for us northern bloods, not to mention the nearby hole in the ozone. Avoiding sunburn and our battle with crappy sunscreen has been an adventure in itself.

Near our DOC camp in Maitai, New Zealand
   The next night we found another free spot North of our snorkel spot. We were in an area that felt very backcountry with winding unpaved roads through farm land. It was a bit of a grueling drive to this next spot (and noticing Alex doesn't perform that well), but this spot was incredible. We had ocean views, it was secluded, and we only had a few other neighbors. After settling in and getting our relax on, we are visited by a gentleman who informed us we are not self contained (we need a toilet, self contained is for motor homes which here they call them campervans, which is what we thought we had. Nope. We just have a van. There is no free site for us to park and sleep anywhere in New Zealand). This caused a stir with other folks too. The people who had a van like ours simply just went back to Auckland. It was after 8 and the nearby holiday park was closed with gates closed. We were pissed. We drove through the maze of gravel roads looking for a flat pull off, but the roads were narrow with deep ditches on either side. An hour of driving and brainstorming, and well passed the already late in the day sunset, we found a place near a reserve that was off the road, but on a hill. We hunkered down and hoped we wouldn't get caught and fined.

   We didn't. From there on out we have been paying $10-$12 per person per night at various campgrounds, private or run by the DOC (Department of Conservation). Being the holiday for Kiwis, theses big plots of grass where you park where ever you please (and usually have very few trees for shade) were filled with palace sized tents. Tents for sleeping, tents for kitchens, even tents for showers that these people brought themselves. I saw lavish set ups that were basically making their experience a hybrid camp/cabin experience. At a DOC camp where we backpacked in on an island in the Bay of Islands a man camping with his family of five (three tiny kids) saw us setting up our tiny 1.5 person tent and asked us all surprised "how many does that sleep? One? Two?" John was polite in saying "Two quite snuggly" but bit his tongue before asking "How many does yours sleep? Nine? Ten?" 

   We did stay in hostels too, as well as one couchsurfing experience. Remember us not having an itinerary? I didn't know where we were visiting or for how long so I blindly sent out couch surfing requests and guessed dates. A couple at the base of the peninsula at the tip of Northland accepted us, we realized after that it was out of the way and we had to speed through some stuff (and made us zig zag the land a bit, not very efficient) but it was worth it. We wanted to meet locals!

Hand drawn map of all the places we went in Nortland, New Zealand
Couchsurfing family in Kaitaia
   This couple lived in a secluded area and had incredible views from their home. They are middle aged and their youngest of three kids at 19 years old was the only one still living with them. As well as two kitties and a feisty dog. They also were hosting a German girl, Diana, at the same time. The woman of the couple,Lisa, was Maori and had the traditional tomoko (tattoo) on her chin which indicative to me she was close to her culture. Not all Maoris are and it would take a second blog to write about Maori history, before and after colonization. (Very similar to what the white man did to the Native Americans). Lisa was more than happy to share her culture with us. She took us to sites where tribes lived called Pa, and to her marae, the community house where people of her family and tribe gather.  We were spoiled with amazing meals, and the last night along with Diana we baked pizzas from scratch. 

Inside Lisa's marae
   Our first day in Kaitaia Diana, John, and I went to the very tip of the North Island, Cape Reinga, where the souls of the dead make their journey back to their homeland. It is also the meeting point of the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean. The two currents met here and cause turbulence in the water that is visible from the cape. This point is not the northern most point of New Zealand, but the real point is just barely further and much harder to get to. Cape Reinga just so happens to have ample hiking tracks that we decided to explore. Our eyes were bigger than our feet though. We chose a loop the involved a 5 kilometer walk on the beach then through the hilly county side and back up. However, beach walking is very hard. We marveled over the sand, the very small and delicate spiral shells, the views, and the... is that a penguin? Yes it is. My first penguin in the wild, washed up on the shore, dead. We saw dead fish and birds previously and thought nothing of them. But once we realized it was a penguin the dead thing became more meaningful. Diana suggested we bury it. I never buried a random animal found dead hiking before but what the heck, for memory's sake. John dug a hole with a stick, we but the little feller in it, I hummed the taps tune, and we covered it in sand. Away we went.

zebra sand

   As many trails as N.Z. had to offer, at times their signage is lacking. After wandering on the wrong track for a bit we just returned the way we came, on the beach, passed or penguin friend whose grave was becoming succumbed to the rising tide, back to the car and home.

Me and my pickled cabbage and kefer milk
   The days that followed were filled with stunning beauty of the land from ocean bluffs to mid land hills of very green grazing land. The long road are lined on both sides with self seeding Agapantha flowers which added color and character to the unique landscape. We stayed in the Bay of Islands for a week, mostly at a hostel that felt more like a home stay. Andrea, the owned, was a sweet lady and healthy cooker. I was picking some cabbage on the road, and I gave her some. In return she gave me kefer grains, you just add milk, strain it out daily, and you have some creamy milk full of probiotics. She cared for our vehicle and drove us to the ferry when we went to camp on Urupukapuika Island for two nights, and picked us up on return. 
Northland country side
A view from Urupukapuka Island as we hiked around it

   Russell, where the ferry picked up, is an old colonial town one sporting the nickname Hell Hole as it was one the place where the worst of human kind went to drink and enjoy many of the brothels. We happened to be there during an anniversary of sorts and in celebration some locals dressed up for the era and did a play about that era, complete with prostitues, priests, crotchety old women looking for their husbands, and a gun draw. The town was their stage and the group of actors moved about the town playing out a story in different sections. It was actually quite hilarious, and the prostitutes flirted with the tourists. We walked by three ladies at point and they cat called to John, "Hey good looking, wanna go for a walk?" John being mister funny man played into it and loudly stated in pretend awkwardness "Oh no no no" while simultaneously putting his arm around my shoulder. Then he leaned behind me and whispered to the ladies "Later!" Har har.

One of many butterflies that would fly up when we walked through the tall grass in the country

   After the Bay of Islands we went back to the west coast and headed south visiting museums, hiking bluffs, and walking through forests with kauri trees. Kauri is a native tree that can grow as large as a sequoia. It was once over logged at the turn of the century and now face a die back disease. At the beginning no trails with kauri trees there is usually brushes and disinfectant left foot you to clean your shoes to protect spread of the disease that is killing the kauri. Kauri is great wood for building and beautiful, both as furniture and as it stands in nature. Very few old large ones are alive today and they live to be thousands of years old. They don't for easily either. The are kauri tree buried in swamps, probably whole forests were wiped out by tsunamis thousands of years ago, that they have been digging up. I bought a very small carving of swamp kauri carbon dated at 40,000 years old. The was a chunk of wood in the famous kauri museum dating at 30,000,000 years old. What made that chunk so special was that despite its age it was still wood and not a fossil! 
Second largest kauri standing in New Zealand

A stair case carved into the trunk of a single kauri tree dug up from a swamp

Cleaning your our shoes before hiking in kauri forests
Cover of The Piano DVD, image is flipped but this is Karekare Beach
Before returning full circle to Auckland we stopped at the Waitakare Ranges west of the city where the coast is dotted with black sand beaches. One of the beaches, Karekare, is where they filmed part of the movie The Piano. I remembered that scene so well, them pulling onto shore, the mute woman in her huge black dress with a petticoat looking about the dreary land of gray and rain that was to be her new home. Lucky us, that scene was replicated in dreariness for it was cloudy and raining all day. We hiked the beach and bluffs anyway. The clouds actually accentuted the landscape, and the lack of sun saved us from melting in heat, though we were thoroughly sticky from the humidity. We stayed on a farm two nights, the animals were very friendly. The ducks and turkeys followed us and a sheep got up from his rest and pranced over to me for a pet and to rub his face on my shorts. We met the friendly farmer the next day while he fed the pigs and he said the farm was educational for kids with developmental disabilities and the friendly sheep's name is Duncan. 

Karekare Beach where The Piano was filmed
From the hike in Waitakare Ranges
   We spent three weeks in the northern tip alone and are so excited for the rest of South Island. We are even reading all the J.R.R. Tolkien books to get in the spirit and mindset of Middle Earth. We talk of hobbits and dwarves on our hikes (Mordor is that way, and look, a hobbit hole!) and have mapped out where parts of the movie were filmed. New Zealand is amazing. It should be a requirement for all travel lusters or outdoor enthusiasts to come here.

Baylys Beach
Some beach on the Bay of Islands

A cute praying mantis that lept onto my camera from my hand while I was filming the little bugger
near the top of Maunganui Bluffs, long uninterrupted beach behind us
A really cool tree