New Zealand (North Island) - November 2007 Megamail

Yep, this Megamail got so large I felt it best to break it into two. I mean, once I tilted 30 pages, I was really given no choice. I thought of making it a trilogy, but felt it was best to simply divide it geographically.

So, New Zealand, how long has this been on our radar? Long before Lord of the Rings, that's for certain. So why now? Well this year the planets aligned and gave us a large block of vacation around Thanksgiving and ample enough time to arrange use of frequent flyer miles to get there.

Of course, the use of frequent flyer miles resulted in a mind-numbing set of connections. Try this one on for size: 8am Sunday leave Richmond for Dallas. This is about a three hour flight followed by a three hour layover. Then, another three hour flight to LA with about a six hour layover. Then the fourteen hour marathon to Sydney, with a relatively short three hour layover and finally another three hour flight to Auckland arriving at around 4pm Tuesday.

Needless to say we felt that with all of these flights we wanted try to fit everything into one suitcase per person that could be used as a carry on. And despite much sacrificing, we accomplished this feat, and there was much rejoicing.

The problem though, was that on the very first flight out of Richmond our bags would not fit in the overheads and they would not gate check them. I hate that rule because we all know it is so bogus. They could only be checked all the way through to New Zealand. Mmm, yeah, what are the odds that they would make it all the way there? About 50% it turns out, but more on that later.

Looking back, there were several things we could have done to avoid that scenario from happening, one of which would have been just to check the luggage and that would have been preferred as that handwritten chicken scratch indicating the bag should end up in Auckland, New Zealand instead of Auckland, Idaho was just a plain old recipe for disaster.

The flights themselves were pretty uneventful. I wasn't going to settle for anything less than individually controlled entertainment systems for the flight to Australia and we got them. I was surprised at the volume of summer blockbusters at our disposal. Let's see, Transformers had outstanding effects but my God couldn't they have hired anybody to do the dialogue? And the chick in the movie was way too hot for the role. I imagine we'll be seeing a lot more of her in the future. Hopefully in Playboy. Footnote on this... I find out her name is Megan Fox. Fox?! Fox is right on.

I love you Sam!

The Fantastic Four sequel, which I was hoping would improve upon the by-the-book original, was horrible except for the exceedingly fetching Jessica Alba. Oceans Thirteen was way better than Oceans Twelve but still miles away from Oceans Eleven. And finally The Simpsons Movie was about as expected. I found the crashed ambulance at the end absolutely hysterical.

You would think that with all of the movies I didn't sleep at all, but I got several hours in and that helped greatly upon our arrival in New Zealand. Of course, it could be that the time differential is so different from the US that the body just gives up trying to produce jetlag.

So we arrive in NZ and immediately see one of our two suitcases. Yippee! But then we waited and waited and realized our doom. Of course, it is even worse than you think because it wasn't my suitcase that was missing, but Sam's. Don't tread on a girl's luggage, let me tell you!

After filling out the usual lost luggage paperwork and exiting customs we promptly saw the Vodaphone dealer and went to rent a cell phone for the duration. We looked this up before we left. It was going to be around $50 plus $1/minute calls. Not bad given the convenience and we used the phone a lot more than I thought we would have, primarily checking in on the status of Sam's lost bag, but also to call ahead to see if there were openings on tours and such. It beats hunting around for the every disappearing pay phone.

Next up, ATM, and then on to the bus transportation area. Taxis from the airport to downtown run $60 (BTW, all prices henceforth are New Zealand Dollars which were about 20% less than the US dollar at the time). But there is a limited stop city bus that costs $15 that stopped about a block from our hotel so we opted for that.

First impressions of Auckland... where is the bloody Interstate? We took almost exclusively suburban and city roads from the airport to downtown. But it would be no different if you took a taxi we found later. Second impression... driving on the left side of the road is strange for about five minutes and then that novelty goes away.

So we arrived at our hotel, the City Central, and checked-in to our very, very small room. Not as small as our place in London that one time, but probably the next smallest. But who cares, it is only one night and that was fast disappearing because of flight delays and lost luggage delays. We hit the streets of Auckland at perhaps 8pm and the streets, I have to admit, were pretty darn dead.

The only thing open were souvenir stores and this provided a preview of the sticker shock we would experience throughout the rest of the trip. We were under the illusion that New Zealand was cheap, and that is most certainly not the case. It is more on par with London, which if you cared to read my Megamail about that, you would know it isn't a city for the poorly paid.

There were a few pubs open and eventually we settled into the bars and restaurants at Viaduct Harbor, which was constructed to support the America's Cup a few years ago. We settled upon a boisterous joint called Danny's Something Or Other. We were a wee bit peckish so we ordered a serviceable cheese and bread platter along with our pints of Monteiths.

Monteith is one of the two big breweries in New Zealand we would find out. But pretty much all of the beers we had during our trip were very quaffable. We thought it was just Auckland, but we thought the tab was a bit on the pricey side. After another round we called it a night.

It would have been nice to spend more time in Auckland, but our primary motivation was to see as much of the natural beauty that NZ had to offer. And even then, we had to make a lot of sacrifices for we only had two weeks.

Piha and Mount Mauranganui (M&M)

After a surprisingly solid night of sleep, we arose somewhat earlier in order to take a taxi to the joint that had our campervan (think of a camper, but not much bigger than a minivan and you have a campervan) awaiting us. There are several campervan rental agencies in NZ and we saw them all in New Zealand, usually every day. In order of frequency we saw Maui, Britz, Apollo, Kea, Pacific Horizon, United, Wicked, and finally ours: Tui. Maui and Britz are more expensive but offer more options as far as pick-up and drop-off locations. We wanted to go with Apollo, but they ran out before we could reserve so we settled upon Tui.

Almost all of them are out near the airport and Tui recommended we call Discount Taxis because their fares from downtown to the airport were half everybody else's. So we did, it was true, they promptly arrived and away we were.

We opted for a campervan with a toilet/shower combination. In the end this was excessive because we didn't use either, though we were planning on it a night or two. If I were doing it again, I wouldn't bother with them and just make sure it has a sink, hot plate and fridge. The holiday parks (i.e. campgrounds) offer excellent facilities throughout NZ.

After finalizing the paperwork and getting a quick tour of the features of our brand spanking new campervan, Sam slipped into the driver seat and promptly made a turn into the street on the wrong side of the road and we were involved in a head on collision!

No, just kidding. But that would be pretty fun to talk about, wouldn't it? No, driving on the left side of the road wasn't that big of a deal. And no, it wasn't a brand spanking new campervan, as you will hear about later.

After a quick jaunt to the airport to check on the status of Sam's suitcase, whereabouts still unknown, we headed for Piha Beach, which is pretty much straight west of Auckland until you run into the ocean.

Along the way I noticed that Kiwis (aka New Zealanders) haven't really heard of the concept of grading their roadsides. If you need to cut through a hill, no bother grading that thing back, just leave a near vertical wall of dirt, stone, sand, whatever. I just found that interesting.

Our first glimpse of Piha Beach was as breathtaking as seen in the brochures. A very wide beach with huge waves crashing down and a Sugarloaf type monolithic boulder dividing the beach into two. There is even a path going up the rock formation which we took. Unfortunately, it did not go all the way up because it was too unsafe. Boo. C'mon, this isn't America; this is the unruly New Zealand outback!

In earlier times, the formation also served as a Pa, which is Maori (native New Zealanders) for defensible position. These are scattered all over New Zealand because effectively every tribe had one. Personally, I wouldn't want to try and lay siege to one of the things unless I was equipped with some rocket launchers.

We then sought out and found the Maungaroa Lookout Track. But unfortunately by this time it was raining and so we decided to cut our hike short. The trail was very muddy so it made traction very difficult.

Our next destination was Mount Mauranganui, or as I will refer to it as: Mt. M or just M&M. This is located on the north coast and is about a 2-3 hour drive east of Auckland. The town is an oceanside resort situated on a peninsula that is terminated by a good-sized hill that is now more or less a city park.

During our drive we saw the first of many sheep and cows. If you didn't already know, NZ has a lot of pastoral farming. In addition to cows and sheep, we saw free range chickens and deer. That kind of takes the fun out of deer hunting, doesn't it?

I do remember one lamb that somehow made it outside of the fence and was quite content reaching up as far as it could go and eating some nice looking bush. Very cute.

The roads between the cities are pretty much all two lane highways. Freeways, or motorways, as they are called in NZ are reserved for only the largest of cities like Auckland and Wellington. We hit M&M's rush hour perfectly which led to a lot more traffic than I thought possible for a city this size.

Keep in mind, NZ has about five million people, about 1 million live in Auckland and about 1 million live on the entire south island. The entire country is about the size of Colorado and in fact, that is a good population comparison as well. So, if you are familiar with Colorado, if you get outside of the Denver or too far from the Interstates, there really isn't a whole lot.

Anyway, Sam needed some clothes because the suitcase was still not located and so we decided to shop around. To our dismay, everything was closed. Hmmm, we thought, that is odd. Why did everything close so early? As it turns out, everything pretty much shuts down in New Zealand by 5pm.

Germany does this too, so it isn't unusual, but Germany also doesn't have sunlight until almost 9pm so what the heck do all these people do in the meantime? Sadly, we cannot inform you of what we do not know. One theory: we saw a lot of people around the soccer matches in Wanaka at about 7pm so there is a clue.

We even asked the lady at the Mount Maunganui Beachside Holiday Park, our first holiday park experience in New Zealand. She lamented that no, everything was closed at this time. We were shocked, but relented.

Speaking of holiday parks, this one was only one of two that we stayed at that actually had a gate that would close at 11pm preventing any new arrivals after that hour. The rest of the holiday parks we visited had a 'pay in the morning' policy for late arrivals, of which Sam and I almost always took advantage of.

Holiday parks are quite different than the camping experience in the states. The biggest feature missing is the fire pit. We did not see a single fire pit in New Zealand. Has nobody told them how cool they are?

Next up: privacy. I went camping once in the US where everybody was pretty much in a big open field with no separation between sites and it wasn't fun. But almost all of the campgrounds in NZ are like that. Only at Tongariro in Whakapapa did they buffer the individual sites with native forest.

One thing they do provide here are communal kitchen facilities for cooking meals. Quite handy compared to the cramp quarters of the campervan.

OK, back to Sam's crisis. Although there was significant pouting due to the lack of open stores, I convinced Sam to do the hikes on Mount M. I say hikes loosely because even though you are going to the top of a fairly steep hill, you do so at a pretty gradual pace and good hiking boots are not a necessity. In fact, a lot of local people were out for the evening run up the hill.

Regardless of how you get there, you should definitely get there because the views are amazing. The top is rather flat so you don't get full 360 degree views from a single spot, but if you move around to the various viewpoints, you can see in every direction. It is an excellent place for a picnic and there are even two picnic tables at the summit. Just beware the punk kids.

During our descent down we both stopped dead in our tracks when we thought we heard a sheep... close! A few steps further and we came across a fence door, on the other side of which was... sheep. The hike crossed right through their grazing pasture. Not the only time this would happen we would find out. But that wasn't even the oddest thing. What's up with the sheep in the middle of town?!? But we weren't complaining, some of those wooly beasts are downright photogenic.

After our walk we called on our cell phone to confirm details for the next day's adventure: dolphin swimming. When we indicated that one of our suitcases was missing and we were missing a swimsuit, they suggested we visit one of the shopping malls on the outskirts of town. Why didn't the holiday park lady suggest this?!?!?!

So we dashed off and found that only the grocery stores were open that late... and surprisingly, they had women's bras and panties. But they were crap and overpriced crap and not the right size crap at that and there were no swimsuits so we decided to take the dolphin swimming chick's advice and just use one of their suits in the morning.

But before we get to the next day... you guys thought you were getting off easy, didn't you? We decided to eat out as this was a thriving city, right? But along the drive back from the mall we realized that this thriving city might not be so thriving after all so we just ran to the restaurant across the street from the campground.

Oh, did I forget to mention that this campground was in the middle of town? Not an uncommon feature in NZ.

Anyway, it was a place called Aloha Lili. We had some bruschetta appetizer that was quite tasty and then Sam had some sort of pumpkin gnocchi special while I went with the risotto. Both were overpriced in our opinion and the service was sketchy.

Speaking of pumpkin, they love it over there. The first few days we saw several specials involving pumpkin this, pumpkin that. And one of the soups we bought for the campervan was a spicy thai pumpkin, which was quite good.

Dolphin Cruise

The next day's primary activity was to take a dolphin swimming cruise in M&M with Captain Butler and his ship Gemini Galaxsea. We thought this was going to take up about 4 hours but it ended up taking 6 or 7.

The swimsuit issue resolved, the only other possible danger was the weather, but NZ prepared for us a spectacular day. Super sunny and warm. Perfect for sailing around the bay in search of dolphins and other fauna.

Although we saw a small pod of dolphins and they swam close enough for us to snap a few pictures and movies and inventory their size and number, they were not in a particularly friendly mood and so we did not get a chance to swim with them.

In fact, I should mention, this is not free swimming in the ocean with the dolphins, but instead involves being dragged behind the boat allowing the dolphins swim to you if they are so in inclined. As Cap said, 'dolphins are supreme and it is not our purpose to harass them.'

So in that sense, the adventure was a bust, but we did get a glorious cruise that totally toasted our bodies, the last two hours of which was spent sailing back to the harbor. It provided a good way to let our worries melt away.

I forgot to mention that in the morning it was confirmed that Sam's missing bag was found and in New Zealand and we arranged to have them send it to Rotorua, our destination for the next evening.

So after our cruise, we drove the hour or so to Rotorua to pick up the bag. Rotorua is a popular destination because it is located in the center of a geothermal area kind of like Yellowstone in the States. Which brings us to...

Geothermal Day

And actually Geothermal Day begins the evening before official Geothermal Day. Don't get technical on me or I'll make this sucker even longer than it needs to be.

It is rare that something is open past 5pm in NZ so when we found an attraction open until 8:30pm, we took full advantage of it. That attraction is Hell's Gate and even before you drive up, it does smell like the pits of hell so it is aptly named.

Unlike Yellowstone, the geothermal attractions in New Zealand are broken up into a half dozen or so privately run attractions. We would end up visiting four of them, Hell's Gate being the first.

Our 20/20 hindsight rates Hell's Gate as third favorite. The geothermal attractions here are all very similar to each other from a layman's point of view, but I'm sure Marty and Chris and other geologist out there would break out in heavy panting contemplating the variations in sulphurous mud density and color. Basically, I saw various shades of grayish-brown and it all smelled like the worst fart I ever unleashed on humanity. They are still venting air into the 4th floor bathroom at Wendt Library thanks to me.

But, one thing that Hell's Gate does have is a spa and the ability to soak in the mud pools and hot springs, which Sam and I felt we deserved in order to get over the stress of the luggage delay.

As we arrived so late we pretty much had the place to ourselves. But be warned, don't wear a swimming suit you like or at least that is very bright because the mud bath will potentially darken it.

That night we stayed at the Rotorua Thermal Holiday Park which provided average accommodations for us compared to all the other holiday parks we stayed at. This one had a restaurant on the premises, but we decided as this was going to be the last night near civilization for awhile we would venture into bustling downtown Rotorua to eat dinner.

Again, we were aghast that the place pretty much shut down at dark. And the restaurants that were open seemed to be about ready to close so we made a quick tour of the options and settled on the pub fare of the Pig and Whistle, which is a bar that is in a former police station. How perfect is that?

I had to go for the fish and chips which were OK while Sam went with the lamburger which was very tasty. I know, I know, we should feel guilty eating all those cute adorable sheep we saw in the fields, but hey, there are 60 million of the suckers.

The first venue we hit the next day was Te Puia right in Rotorua. This is probably the most popular of the geothermal areas, the most crowded, the most expensive and the most worthless of the bunch. This clearly rated as our least favorite of the four and it is unfortunate that we spent the most time there.

We did join forces with a German group (there were tons of German speakers in NZ, and strangely enough, a ton of Spaniards too) to obtain a group discount so I feel vindicated that we stuck it to the man at least a little.

The memorable features here were the Kiwi Hut (and keep in mind, this is not a geothermal attraction so imagine what that says about the rest of it) which had a display of some nocturnal Kiwi's hopping about. They were a fair sight larger than I was expecting, and a lot clumsier looking.

The other major feature is the Pohutu Geyser which goes off seemingly constantly. But having seen the geysers in Yellowstone several years ago, I was unimpressed.

We spent too much time at Te Puia and so we were running a little late for our next two destinations, Waimangu and Waiotapu, which are about 10 minutes drive from one another, and only about 30 minutes from Rotorua.

However, we first had a date with a Good Samaritan Award. While we were driving to Waimangu, we came across another campervan on the side of the road waving for help. It was a young German couple with a dead battery. We were happy to help, but were reluctant to join them in the ditch because we feared we were not going to get out.

So after exerting ourselves (some vacation), we managed to push their van onto the road and down a hill in an attempt to pop the clutch. That guy didn't know what the hell he was doing I tell you. Not like I would know what to do as I'm just a fat lazy American. This guy grew up driving stick, what's his excuse? Anyway, we got them jumped and then went another quarter mile to reach our destination.

The Waimangu Valley has got a pretty good setup. You take the 3km walk down to the lake and then take the shuttle bus back up to the top. And they have a few stops so you can go as slow as you want and as far as you want.

Sam and I kept up a pretty brisk pace, which was disappointing because we almost immediately realized how much better this place was compared to the last one... and at half the price it seemed like a steal.

Let's just say that the features are a lot more varied and colorful and well, just plain interesting. If you are looking for views, don't pass the Mount Haszard (no, that is not a misspelling) trail which provides excellent views of the valley down to the lake.

Oh, I forgot to mention why this particular place is so interesting. This is the only geothermal area formed in human times. It was created during a massive eruption in the 1800's that totally obliterated something called the White and Pink Terraces, once considered a natural wonder of the world. To see how fast some of these geothermal features appeared considering how slowly geology usually works was fascinating.

I think that Waimangu Valley slightly edges out the Waiotapu Geothermal Wonderland, our final destination for Geothermal Day, as our favorite of the four. We arrived to Waiotapu about 3:30 (last admission was 3:45) so we really had to hustle through this one, which was a pity because we would have liked to take some more time.

Again, like Waimangu Valley, Waiotapu Geothermal Wonderland had a great variety of formations. The most striking of which are the Champagne Pool, the Primrose Terrace and Lake Ngakoro. One interesting thing we saw was a maintenance crew taking gasoline powered leaf blowers to one of the features. What they were blowing we couldn't really tell as there weren't much in the way of leaves.

So in summary of Geothermal Day, Waimangu Valley and Waiotapu Geothermal Wonderland are the two must sees and possibly catch a mud bath at Hell's Gate.

Our next couple hour drive was to Whakapapa in Tongariro National Park. This was also the first time that I got to drive the big beast. Despite my first right turn onto the wrong side of the road, I didn't make that mistake again. Eventually the curvy mountain roads overwhelmed me and I relinquished driving duty to Sam again.

The terrain changed dramatically enroute. From hilly farmland it changed to drier pastureland punctuated with a handful of volcanic peaks. The most recognizable one is a near perfect cone volcano called Mount Ngauruhoe. Most of you would recognize it as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies. And like Sam and Frodo, Sam and I would venture into the depths of Mordor the next day on the ...

Tongariro Crossing

The Tongariro Crossing is billed as the best one day hike in New Zealand, and one of the best of the world. After conquering it ourselves, we have to say that the advertising is a bit modest. And to think, it almost was for naught.

The hike is extremely popular; it is also a one way hike. This has resulted in several shuttle companies springing up that will take you to the start of the trail and pick you up at the end. Not knowing how often the shuttles ran in not-quite peak season, we decided we had better call ahead to reserve a spot on one of the busses.

The phone call that followed was one of the most awkward I've ever had. First, the driver asked where I was coming from, to which I answered the United States because *everybody* asked me that up to that point... something to do with tourism statistics I was told, though I was tempted to respond Canadian once to see I received some hidden discount.

Anyway, I'm not sure if I just misunderstood his cockney accent, but it sounded like his response to me was 'And what the frack would I need to know that for? Where are you coming from?'

Remembering that they had shuttles leave from different cities around the park, I said Whakapapa. Well, I obviously mispronounced it and the guy seemed almost offended and responded Frackapapa, Whakapapa, Whakapapa! We'll see you at 7:15.

Me: OK, sounds good, where are you going to pick me up?

Him: You just told me, Whakapapa!

Me: OK, but where, the visitor's center, the hotel...

Him: At the entrance to the holiday park!

OK, so needless to say, that whole conversation didn't make me optimistic that a shuttle would be waiting for us.

The next hurdle to clear was actually getting up at an ungodly hour in preparation for the hike. I am not a morning person as many of you know. But to make matters worse, it was pretty frickin' cold those two nights in Tongariro. It was the only time during the trip we pulled out the extra blanket AND the space heater.

The primary question that morning was, boy, is this going to be worth freezing our butts off. Eventually we said, yeah, we better, why else did we come. At least it isn't raining so we better hit it while the weather was good.

We heard a shuttle bus humming at 7am so we quickly waddled over there with our gear and promptly found a bustle of activity and two shuttles from two different companies. Of course, I couldn't remember which company I called so we did some walk-up business with the closest one.

Some things of note about the shuttle service. First, it costs $30/person and they actually do take credit cards. Second, it was packed. I imagine in peak season you really have to have a reservation. Though, they do have shuttles running until 9am and I don't know how full those were.

During the ride over they handed out a brochure containing details of the hike like a map, elevation changes, expected durations of each segment, along with failsafe times to leave each section in order to make the last shuttle because they aren't sending another bus in the event you miss it.

Now, some general comments about the hike. You will never be alone along the track. Like I said, it is very popular. However, I never really found all the other people a problem. They were in the same boat as you were and wanted to enjoy what the trail had to offer as much as you did.

Second, if there was ever a trail where 'pack plenty of water' and 'dress in layers' applies, it is this one. We brought along four quart bottles of water and went through more than three of them. And the temperatures varied from blistering sun in no wind to cloudy skies in hurricane force gales. OK, I might be exaggerating that wind a little bit, but that probably depends if you do any of the side trails. More about that later.

So the hike starts out fairly flat in sparse brush but quickly joins up with a creek and follows that for quite a ways. This is also one of the warmer portions. Don't forget to look back and see Mount Egmont some 100 km distant. It kind of looks like Mount Rainier off in the distance. There is a subtle increase in elevation, but nothing like the...

... Devil's Staircase. This portion is the steepest and really makes you wonder what the hell you got yourself into. It is an hour long rock scramble that literally steals your breath. But take as many breaks as you need (I think we broke it up into quarters) and you'll be fine. This is also the hottest part of the trip. This is where wearing those pants that unzip to shorts really helps.

Needless to say, a major rest area is at the top of the staircase that provides awesome views of all the poor suckers who have yet to make their first step up. That is another thing I noticed throughout the hike, there is a steady stream of pilgrims both ahead of you and behind you all going at slightly different paces.

If you are a true glutton for punishment, once recuperated from the Devil's Staircase, you can opt to hike to the top of Mount Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom). They say it can be done in two hours up and one hour down but I can't imagine how. Fortunately for us, it wasn't really an option because it was still covered in ice and snow and we did not pack our ice crampons and boots. Poor us.

The next flat part takes you across a caldera floor. This provides constant views of Mount Ngauruhoe, plus, an increasing number of views of other smaller peaks. The next part is the final major ascent. Normally, this wouldn't pose a problem, but after doing the Devil's Staircase, you legs are little wobbly. But knowing that this is really the last big climb is a big motivator.

This section also provides views on the other side of the crater for the first time. Phenomenal!

At the top of the ascent is naturally another major rest area. Here you get almost 360 views around and can start seeing some of the lakes you'll be seeing up close and personal later on in the journey. This also marks the start of another side trail to the top of Mount Tongariro. This side trip is a lot more manageable and the ascent is more forgiving.

However, as Mount Tongariro was also covered in snow, we only went up about half way in order to obtain some panoramic views. Words cannot describe how amazing they are, though we have a hundred photos that might come close.

After another very short ascent, you are at the highest point in the trail and get views of the Emerald Lakes (can't imagine why they call them that) and Red Crater (again, the naming is hardly original, but the beauty of it all cannot be argued either). You also start to see portions of the hill that are steaming and catch an occasional whiff of sulphur, reminding you that you are walking on an active geothermal area. Even the rocks are warm in parts!

Despite the glorious views, the winds are menacing and you are now back to long pants and wearing a jacket.

And now begins the long descent down. The first part is quite challenging as you go down rather steeply and it is along very loose gravel. With every step you literally slide another yard down. So what should be easy, takes some concentration. But please don't be the bozo jumping from spot to spot. Although it may be fun for you, it starts a near avalanche and really bothers everybody else.

At the bottom of this steep descent are the Emerald Lakes. And despite their amazing appearance, they are rather nasty to the nose. What you think would provide an excellent lunching location really isn't because the smell overpowers the taste of the food.

Instead, move along to Blue Lake for your extended break. It is across another rather flat caldera floor providing excellent views of Red Crater with Mount Ngauruhoe in the background. Then up a short ascent to Blue Lake. Here you will find a great number of people taking a break, but the lake is quite large and has room enough for all.

BTW, what were our normal lunches? Quite simple actually, salami and cheese (good cheese over there... made me miss Wisconsin) sandwiches with granola bars as filler. That's it.

Just when you think that the hike cannot provide you anything new, it deals you four queens, which we all know is a nearly unbeatable sheepshead hand. Well, maybe it just deals you two queens due to the stunning views of Lakes Taupo and Rotoaira. These will be with you the next couple of hours and get better at every turn.

The terrain also changes dramatically. From barren volcanic rock, you now have a sea of tall golden grass. Your next stop is a hut, where you will find some much needed toilet facilities and a lot of people resting up for the long last stage of the trip.

And rest you should because you keep going down and down and down. You see some wooded land off in the distance and that is your destination. And even once you enter it, you still have a ways to go. They even taunt you by putting in a small ascent. Which after going down for the last three hours, is more tiresome than it sounds.

By the end you are in a virtual rainforest it is so dense with vegetation. Then you hook up with a fast flowing stream and pretty much follow that down to the parking lot. There we found a number of people sitting around waiting for the shuttle busses. We timed things perfectly because I doubt we waited for more than 10-15 minutes.

During the drive back, you pass the beginning of the hike. As predicted, the driver asked if anybody wanted another go. Part of me did.

According to our original plan, we were going to drive to Wellington after our hike. That's about a four hour drive. Then we were going to spend the morning touring Wellington before taking a ferry across to the south island, and then do some seakayaking in the Marlborough Sounds. And then after that, we would drive halfway to Westport, which was near our Underwater Rafting Adventure.

What actually happened is that we didn't feel we had it in us to drive all that way after exerting ourselves on the hike so we made a nice meal, did some laundry and quaffed some beers in a congratulatory tone.

So the new plan was to drive down to Wellington, see what we could, take a later ferry across, and then drive all the way to Westport. All told that would be about 12 hours in motion, truly making it...

Transportation Day

Now knowing our plans, we secured passage on the Interislander ferry via the Internet connection at the bar outside of the campground. This place was on the dead side, which we were surprised. I guess I figured there would be a lot of people out celebrating their fantastic hike. Maybe they all missed the bus?

I had the fortunate pleasure of doing most of the driving to Wellington. But once we reached the city I passed my duties to Sam. Getting out of 1st gear is such a pain at the traffic lights you know.

Wellington is the capital of New Zealand and it certainly has the hustle and bustle of a capital city. But, we really didn't see much of the city itself as we zipped right through it to drive to the peninsula east of the city. I'm not sure what this peninsula is called as our tour book simply calls the escapade the: Marine Drive Tour.

And it was a very nice little tour. If we had more time, we would have done more than the stop, point and shoot method we had to employ in what the locals call: Windy Wellington. And indeed, Wellington has some wind.

I think the southern part of this journey was the most interesting however. One, because you come across penguin crossing signs. How cool is that? Then, in addition to the outstanding views of the shoreline, you have off in the distance, the snow-capped mountains of the south island. And yes, they truly did beckon us to come hither.

We thought we had finished our driving tour with plenty of time to get to the ferry. And indeed, we arrived like 30 minutes early, but I guess this was just in time from a car loading standpoint because there were only two vehicles who loaded after us. So keep that in mind for the ferry crossing... be early!

That ferry takes a bit more than three hours to travel between islands and is plenty big. Even though the winds and therefore waves in the Cook Strait between the islands are quite intense, my sometimes weary stomach had no issues on this trip. They offer a movie during the journey if you are interested, but most people tend to sit either in the front bar/restaurant, or along the rear observation deck.

That is because the wind is very intense at the front of the ship until you reach the shelter of the Marlborough Sounds. We naturally took the opportunity the voyage offered us to have a beer and take a little nap.

Make sure you get to the front of the ferry before you actually arrive to the sounds. That is because soon it will be packed with people taking pictures so it best to stake out a quality position to take lots and lots of pictures of the South Island.



Our trusty steed.


Piha Beach from the approaching road.


View of Mount Maunganui (the city) from atop Mount Maunganui (the hill).


View of Mount Maunganui from the Dolphin cruise.


Steaming gray wasteland of Hell's Gate.


Waimangu Valley seen from the top of Mount Haszard.


Sam next to one of the more colorful displays at Waimangu Valley.


Champagne Pool at Waiotapu.


View of Mount Ngauruhoe from the highest point during our hike.


Sam and the Emerald Lakes.


One last look back at Mount Ngauruhoe.


Lake Taupo seen from the Tongariro Crossing.


Wellington, New Zealand.


The Marlborough Sound.