New Zealand is blessed with numerous incredible beaches. Heading up the west coast of the North Island from Wellington, we discovered a black sand beach in Wanganui that extended into the horizon in both directions. The black sand is one of the remants from volcanic activity. Scattered along the beach are pumice stones and chunks of lava amongst the driftwood.
North along the coast is Mount Taranaki - the most recent volcano in this area. In his early days, Sir Edmund Hilary developed his climbing skills on this mountarin. We tramped through the lush rain forest up to and just above the tree line, and that was high enough for us. Mount Taranaki looms over the nearby town of New Plymouth situated along the coast. We were fortunate to be camping close to where the town was hosting an international womens surfing competition, and had the opportunity to watch some of the world's top women surfers.
Moving inland there is evidence of more ancient volcanic activity. For 105 kilometers we followed the 'Forgotten World Highway' which twists and turns up and down steep hills, valleys and gorges. A very remote area, it is now predominately grazing land for both
sheep and cattle. This stunningly beautiful lush green landscape came as a complete surprise to us, and therefore, was all the more precious.
Perhaps the most well-known volcanic mountains are found in Tongoriro National Park - New Zealands first national park founded in 1880, and the fourth national park to be created in the world; and popularized in the Lord of the Rings by using one of the peaks as Mount Doom. The 19.4 km Tongoriro Crossing is reputed to be New Zealand's best one day tramp. For 3/4 of the walk, the landscape is barren, with no vegetation. The Crossing includes long, steep ascents and descents, crossing the floor of two craters, passing by thermal pools and steam vents, tramping over a great variety of volcanic rock, hard-packed dirt and deep, loose sand and gravel. This is a major attraction with hundreds of people doing the Crossing every day. Upon completion, we were both thoroughly thrilled and fatigued. It was an amazing tramp!
In the central area of the North Island there are numerous areas of considerable thermal activity. In many areas New Zealand captures this energy to generate electricity. Following the advice of a Kiwi, we
visited Orakie Korako - located in an isolated, peaceful valley. This fascinating area has great significance to the Maori and has not been overly commercialized by them. It includes boiling springs, geysers, bubbling mud pools, distinct fault lines, vegetation only found around in areas of thermal activity, and a distinct sulphorous odour.
Similar to what is occuring in Canada with respect to the First Nations peoples efforts to revitalize their language and culture, the Maori are undertaking the same here. One aspect of this is to engage New Zealanders and tourists in their traditions. We were treated to a feast cooked underground, and a display of Maori dance and customs which are largely based on their history of being a warrior society.
With about three weeks to go, we are working our way up to the north end of the North Island.
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