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December 24 - January 4, 2006
I arrived in Auckland on Christmas Eve and on Christmas morning met up with our friend Richard who came from Florida to join us for a 3-week New Zealand adventure. From the airport, we headed by car to Rotorua, about 2 hours southeast. Much of NZ is volcanic and Rotorua is a very large active geo-thermal area complete with hundreds of geysers, hot springs, and the ever present smell of sulphur. After a tour of the geyser fields, which includes many large and active geysers, boiling mud fields, a pools of water so hot they can cook a ham in an hour, we visited the Maori cultural center and learned a bit about the history of the Maori people, the first inhabitants of NZ. We also saw real kiwi birds, a native but endangered species. We enjoyed Christmas lunch at the Regal Geyserland Hotel and the decided to initiate Richard to driving on the left side of the road. We set our for a scenic drive to the east coast village of Whakatane, along the way passing two beautiful lakes, lots of beautiful scenery, and hundreds and hundreds of NZ's most prominent resident - Sheep! At Whakatane Richard visited the South Pacific Ocean for the first time.
The next day we joined River Rats Rafting for a short but unique whitewater rafting trip to Okere Falls, which has the distinction of being the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world. It's not particularly dangerous, just adrenaline-inducing! We started with a couple of warm up waterfalls - the first 1 1/2 meters (8 ft), the second 4 meters (12 feet). Then it was on to Okere Falls at 7 meters (21 feet). As this is significantly higher than our 16 foot raft is long, when going over the falls, the raft is vertical for a time and there is a reasonable risk of flipping over. But our superior skill prevailed and we safely emerged at the bottom with huge smiles on our faces. From there, we enjoyed a scenic trip down the river in smaller, but fun rapids.
From there it was on to the Tongariro National Park, with a stop for lunch in Taupo, a nice town on a huge, beautiful lake which once again provides an overdose of scenery! Tongariro National Park is a large area set aside as conservation land which includes two large volcanoes, Mt Ruapehu (which erupted in 1997) and Mt. Ngauruhoe (which last erupted in 1986) which rise majestically over the landscape (Lord of the Rings was flimed nearby). After dinner and a good nights sleep, we set off to complete the Tongariro Crossing, described as the "best one day hike in NZ". It is a 17 kilometer (10 mile) hike over moderately challenging terrain - that is unless you choose to take the side trip and climb Mt. Ngauruhoe! As the hike begins at one end and finishes at the other, you are dropped off in the morning by bus and picked up at the other end 8 hours later. The crossing has a suggested complete time of 7-8 hours and the optional climb of Mt. Ngauruhoe is said to take 3 hours. We knew the suggested times are generous so we decided to complete the first section of the hike and see how we felt before deciding whether to tackle the volcano. After an hour and a half of good uphill climbing we reached the decision point. We were ahead of schedule and feeling good, so off we set for Ngauruhoe. Climbing it had been described as taking two steps up and one step back and we soon learned why! There is no actual trail up the volcano - you just sort of shoot for the top. But the terrain is extremely difficult - loose rocks and scree that make it nearly impossible to make progress at times. Our progress was slow but steady and we soon had the summit in view. But we had set a deadline for a turnaround time and that time was rapidly approaching. We did not want to miss our bus at the other end. Realizing it would take me quite some time to complete the climb, I sent Richard on up and instructed him to take some pictures for me in case I did not make it in time. I did make it to a large snow patch, and was probably only 50 veritical meters from the top when Richard summited, but I knew it would take me at least another half hour to get up, another hour to get down, and then, we still had 3/4 of the hike left! So we honored our turnaround time and began the descent. It was certainly quicker than the ascent, but still difficult. Treacherous footing, slipping and sliding, and occasional falling rocks from above meant you had to pay close attention. We made it safely down, exhausted, but happy, having taken the full 3 hours to make the climb (we were now 4 1/2 hours into our total allotted time till but pickup).
With shaky calves and sore feet, we began the next section, a l-o-n-g, tough uphill trek, ending at Red Crater, before beginning the last section, which is mostly flat and down hill. We needed a rest stop so we had a quick lunch at the Emerald Lakes, set among yet more spectacular scenery. It's all just so rugged, so majestic, and so overwhelming. But we knew we had to pick up the pace if we were to make the bus on time. After another hour, we reached a sign saying it was still 4 hours to the end of the trail. We knew we could cover it faster than that, but I was tired, and I wasn't sure I could get there in time. Knowing Richard could move a lot faster on his own, I convinced him to go on ahead as fast as he could, catch the bus back to our hotel, and come back with our car to meet me at the end of the trail. This plan worked well, with Richard passing people left and right and getting to the bus stop just in time. I, on the other hand, could relax and slow down, especially since I had a toenail that was aching with every step and getting pounded on this downhill leg. I finally ended up taking off my boots and completing the last two hours in just my socks, which turned out to be more comfortable but a lot slower. Finally the end was in sight, and I saw a familiar face - Richard coming up the trail to meet me. Exhausted, we drove back to the hotel and confirmed that this was the best one-day hike we had ever done!
By this time, we received word that Shear Madness had arrived safe and sound in Opua, so we planned to head that way. Our next stop was the Waitomo Caves, a large cave system famous for their gloworms. It is a major tourist destination, but nevertheless was worth the visit. We weren't up to anything too active after our hike, so a stroll through the caves was perfect. We saw incredible stalagmite and stalagtite formations, and ended the tour with a boat ride along the river that flows through the cave where we say thousands upon thousands of gloworms, a unique insect that exists for most of its life as larvae, living on the ceiling of the cave, dangling a thread (sort of like a spiderweb) which puts out a green neon-like light to attract insects which they feed on. As adults, the gloworms live only long enough to lay eggs and die.
As we were leaving the caves, we passed a sign that said "Ostrich Eggs". Thinking this might be just the thing Bradley might enjoy, we stopped in and visited the lady who has an ostrich farm. We purchased an egg, and she gave us instructions on how to open it and cook it. Then we were off to Auckland where we planned to stay the night with our friend Neil, who Bradley and I met back in 2000 when we first bought Shear Madness. After a fun night with Neal, we headed north towards Opua with stops along the way at the Longview Estates Winery, and at Whangerei Falls, a scenic waterfall.
Finally we met up with Shear Madness in Opua. The start of our cruising adventures was delayed for a few days as our battery charger had gone on the blink. Without the ability to re-charge our batteries, we would soon run out of power once away from the marina. As the New Year weekend had arrived, most businesses were shut down for a few days. So after a quiet New Year's Eve where we watched the local fireworks from the boat, Richard and I were forced to play some golf! We visited the beautiful Whangerei Golf Club, situated right on the water. Nearly every hole has a fantastic view and it was a lot of fun to play there.
We also played at the KeriKeri Golf Club, located about 20 miles from Opua. As we had no transportation, our only real option was to hitchhike. It took a while to get there - I'm sure Richard wondered what he had got himself into - but it was worth it. Another beautiful course.
Knowing we would be land-bound for several days, we were finally able to secure a rental car from Rent-A-Dent. At least we now had transportation! So Bradley, Richard, and I set off to do a local hike - the Cape Brett Trail. Just the drive to get there was an adventure - starting with a car ferry and then a long, winding, unpaved road filled with yet more spectacular views. The hike did not disappoint either - described as "difficult" it lived up to its billing with some steep uphill climbs with some exceptional scenic stopping points. We stopped for a well earned beer in Russell before heading back to the ferry. As we had worked up a pretty good appetite, we were in the mood for something good for dinner - perhaps Ostrich egg omelets! Now, an ostrich egg is not like a chicken egg. You don't just crack it in a bowl. You actually need power tools! Richard took charge of the drill and drilled a hole in the top. Then the contents were shaken out and turned over to chef Bradley who discovered that ostrich eggs do better scrambled than as omelets. But add some venison sausage and you have a great meal! But with four people, we barely put a dent in the egg! We had enough left for three more breakfasts and a snack!
New Zealand is becoming well know for its wine production. They have some exceptional white wines, though they do not have the climate to produce great reds. But a couple local wineries looked worth a visit. We visited the Cottle Hill Winery and tasted their selections - served by the co-owner. After some shopping and sightseeing in KeriKeri, we visited the Marsden Winery where we also had a wonderful lunch.
Finally the holidays were over and on a rainy day I drove to Auckland to pick up a new battery charger. Soon we had it installed, our batteries our batteries were charging. After a dinghy cruise up the local river it was time to go cruising!