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Published: March 29th 2006
Break in the Storm
Whakapapa Village, Tongariro National Park
I arrived at 6am after the 13 hour flight, feeling good. My muscle relaxant worked and the neck pillow was crucial to my 6 hours of sleep! I drove to downtown New Zealand. The airport is nice, and customs was suprisingly efficient, cordial, intuitive and easy. First was the passport stamper, the then drug sinffing beagle and friendly kiwi handlers, and then the agricultural inspections. I felt a bit like I was going through a museum to different exhibits with friendly curators, explaining to me what I was seeing. I got my rental car keys, bought postcards and a driving atlas and some water. I brushed my teeth and 2 others were cleaning up as well. I wasn't in any hurry to start driving on the wrong side of the road at 630am, stiff and on vacation. I needed to slow down, which was weird because I was in an airport and an airport isn't usually the type of place that you would want to linger. But off I went to face my future driving on the left side of the road. Should I practice in the parking lot? What happens when I make turns or pass on the
Welcome to Whangarei! It was pouring rain when I arrived.
highways? I changed clothes and watched the sunrise while eating some breakfast. After saddling up my 2005 stick shift Mitsubishi Colt and was on my way to downtown Auckland.
Quickly I realized it wasn't that hard to drive on the left side of the road, you just follow the person in front of you. Because there are more roundabouts than stop lights, the traffic flow is very fluid. The worst things were that the turn signal is on the right side of the steering wheel! Auckland felt like a big city, its the same area as the immediate bay area, surrounded by ocean and has over one million residents. It was always a little hilly no matter where you were, and downtown reminded me of San Francisco in its steepnees and concrete splendor. I had lunch, I bought some things. NZ is a very white, but there are also lots of Maori. No matter the ethnicity everyone is extremely friendly. I also saw some asian people downtown, the diversity was refreshing and reminded me I was in Austral-Asia. Soon enough, I got bored in the city and knew I had to be making my way 2 hours North
Poor Knights Islands
Tuatara's can live over 60 years. They have a third eye on their head that absorbs light for vitamins. A reptile who is part of a group that was long thought extinct, The Tuatara's other relatives died out over 60 million years ago.
to Whangarei where I would be staying for the night. Auckland is NZ's largest city, the weather is warm and humid in summer and mild and wet in winter. It rains every month of the year, but for me it was felt cool but was almost hot in the afternoon because of the humidity.
Whangarei was a nice little town. I had my first incident of driving on the wrong side of the road and almost causing an accident. Hey, nobody was around! I arrived just past 1pm and found a nice little motel on a hill above town. I showered, ate some lunch and was off to the Giant Kauri Forests of the Northwest.
These giant trees are some of the most ancient on earth, even more primitive than pine trees and other conifers. The Kauri is in the same family as the Monkey Puzzle tree of Chile, and the common New Caledonia Pine planted all over in California. They are as large as Sequoias, and can live over 2000 years. Unfortunately the wood makes excellet masts and lumbar, and all of the living Kauri are less than 10% of what was originally there. I
visited the largest Kauri of all, Tane Mahuta. This 'King of the Forest' was easily as large as the largest Sequoia, although not as tall! Though the forest was magical, it was moist and wamr out. The sand Flies bit me as I walked through the forest, listening to all the different birds sing. Aside from 2 species of Bats, no mammals or Marsupials were found on New Zealand. Evidence indicates New Zealand was the first to split from the Ancient Supercontinent of Gondwanaland over 80 million years ago. Since this was before the first mammals and marsupials were widespread, only flying creatures made it to New Zealand. On my hike their many offspring haunted me with their own songs, while the Kauri trees and ferns showed me a forest scene from eons ago.
The town of Tutukaka was where I left the next morning for a SCUBA trip to the Poor Knights Islands. The name implies farts and crap- but the Tree Ferns and Pohutukawa covered cliffs of the harbor implied something much more appealing.
The Poor Knights claim to fame is that this was one Jaque Cousteau's top 10 favorite diving spots
The sub-tropical forest grows thick where it is not cut.
list. They reminded me of the channel islands, red volcanis rock rose in steep cliffs from the clear blue sea. Vegetation clings to the rocks and the waves sculpt more and more caves and arches. Here the New Zealand native Tuatara lizard still lives well, far away from introduced predators on the land. Kelp forest thrives. I saw weird jellyfish with sparkling bodies, eerie forests of flat leaved kelp and more eels than I could count. You didn't need gloves, but the cold water required a 7 mil wetsuit. It was really nice diving and scenery, and the diving crew was really nice. I met people from the commonwealth nations, Scotland, Ireland, South Africa and Australia. I met a couple from San Francisco and Santa Clara!
Best unexpected moment? Witnessing the cascade of raindrops on the surface of the ocean while ascending in the silence of the open water. Pulsating comb jellies floated by, seeming to glow by diffracting light with their cilia by which they travel. As I reached out to touch the tin can sized animal, the delicate structure of ts body simply unraveled into several pieces of jellyfish cloth. Apparently I just killed my first
animal of the Phylum Ctenophora!
I made my motel reservation in Otorohanga after the SCUBA dive and drove 5 hours south to get there. I had dinner on the outskirts of AUckland and drove through the rain well after dark to get there! Otorohanga was a pleasant town, and once again the Kiwis were entirely too friendly. I arrived at 1030pm, and the owner stayed later to give me my key. He graciously let me dip in the hot tub which was locked after 9pm and asked about my travels. I was exhausted! But I was also due at 9am the next morning for a 7 hour caving tour called 'The Lost World Epic'.
Karst Country, Waitomo is the tourist hub of the commercial caves. The whole region is composed of limestone rock, which makes strange outcrops and streams that dissappear into the ground. I went on the tour to the 'Lost World' cave. After putting on our wetsuits, helmets, lights and boots the 9 of us and 2 guides rappelled 320 feet down a sinkhole to the entrance of the cave, it was spectacular! We were underground for over 6 hours, hiking
Tree Ferns over the Waipoua River
up the river. There were fossilized oysters everywhere in the cave, and large freshwater eels in the river begging for food. One of the guides picked up the resident eel! they were quite friendly those eels, apparently they breed in Fiji and then swim to New Zealand as they become adults? Very strange. The cave was filled with jagged rocks and 200 foot ceilings, the cold river was incredibly refreshing. We jumped off ledges and through holes into the river, and ate lunch in a giant chamber filled with glowworms that lit up the cave like thousands of LED lights. I will never forget that image! It was like stargazing. Later our hike out on to the grassy hills to see tons of sheep and blue skies was like sensory overload. We all washed up while the guides cooked us sausages and steak. Soda, Pasta, Salad and Bread were waiting as well. What a day!
The drive to Tongarairo was 2.5 hours of sheep and farms. I was on my way to Wellington, which was still more than 4 hours to the south. After making my reservation for a hostel a stop at Tongarairo was mandatory.
Tree Ferns and Kauri Trees dominate the forest.
A hike known as the 'Tongarairo Crossing' is said the be the finest in the Country, and scenes of Frodo and Sam approaching Mt. Doom were filmed here. I hadn't planned on hiking the Tongariro Crossing, instead opting to day trip to a Ski Resort on the side of 7300 foot Cone of Mt. Ngauruhoe. Contrary to my expectations, Tongarairo National Park was every bit as gorgeous as I heard it was! Ngauruhoe rises over one vertical mile from the volcanic plains, and the plains are covered in virgin, moss covered Beech Forest. Besides being lush and exotic, Beech forest is evidence that all the major landmasses on the earth today were once joined together hundreds of millions of years ago. they are living fossils of the primevil 'first forest', along with other notable trees-Redwoods, Sequoias and Monkey Puzzles. Beech forest is also the dominant alpine forest of Chile, Argentina, Australia and Tasmania. Its beauty isnt dramatic like the Fir and Pine forests of the Northern Hemisphere. It is as enchanting as any Temperate rainforest, yet the trees are subtle, hardy and uniform. Its smells like
clean water and moss- not of pine sap and fragrant herbs.
drove to the end of the road past Whakapapa village. As you ascend out of the bushline, the volcanic nature of the rocks becomes evident. It's a deep, dark red like rusted metal. Some places have ash fields, some are filled with frozen chunks of lava. Strange native alpine plants grow in the crevices. The ski resort felt much higher than 7000 feet and had more than 10 ski lifts, none of which were in operation. The usual summer lift with which delivers patrons to the highest cafe in New Zealand was closed from the imposing weather. Wave after wave of cloud storms passed through while I could see blue skies in the distance. It snowed, and the wind howled at over 40 mile per hour. That didn't stop me from getting some of my best pictures so to that point of the dramatic canyons, snow capped volcano and strange plants!
After my first taste of Alpine New Zealand, I was off to Wellington. The drive rounding the volcano to the South was memorable, being crystal clear with blue skies and brush strokes of clouds. The earlier storms which hurt morale were now bearing their fruit. 3 hours
Kauri, Meet Asphalt
Unfortunately only 7% of the Virgin Kauri Forest remains. What is left is slowly being grazed to death by many of the 70 million exotic Australian Possums.
later I approached the ocean as the road passes through bigger and bigger valleys to the plains. Some Mountains approached, the ocean appeared and the sun began to set.
Wellington was an impressive city. The Capitol of New Zealand, Wellington is incredibly similar to San Francisco although much smaller. It's cool, dominated by the ocean and windy. The city has a skyline of high rises placed in a mile wide strip betweeen bay and hills. It was trendy and professional, compact and modern. Fortunately the city got the cold shoulder because I was dead tired and it was 1030pm. The hot Maori girl at the front desk was kind enough to get me ice for my neck, and I retired to bed. I had to be up by 630am the next day to catch the ferry to Picton to begin my journey on the South Island. I also had yet to buy tickets to the Ferry, an oversight which may cause me a headache!
*NOTE- This entire blog and everywhere I went can also be found as a Google Earth file. Google Earth is
Tree Ferns and Kauri Trees
Kauri's rival the other great trees of the world in both size and age.
incredible software that puts the earth at your fingertips! If you havn't already, please do yourself a favor and download it! If you already have Google Earth, click here to see all the locations on the North Island:
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