Friday, March 27, 2009

Last Days in New Zealand

Its hard to look back and think that almost three months have passed since we landed in New Zealand, but its true. Our last month here has been somewhat of a blur, not just because its gone quickly, but because its been far more disjointed than February, where all we did was cruise from one overnight hike to another.

After an epic 6 day circuit covering two grand river valleys in Nelson Lakes National Park, we left the South Island with a bit of saddness in early March. We spent a couple evenings in Wellington again with Baekdu Daegan guidebook author Roger Shepard, and had a look around New Zealand's capital city. The cultural highlight was the magnificent Te Papa museum, but we also found culinary delights in a small bagel shop run by a New York native, trained in the art of bagelry by an old Jewish baker. For a soul deprived of crusty hard on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside bagels for 7 months, this was indeed a welcome treat.

All but too soon we headed north out of Wellington, making our way to Tongiraro National Park. The park consists of 3 volcanoes which we intended to walk around in 3 days, but the weather gods of Tongiraro decided that this wasn't the time, and we decided to move on rather than wait for a clear spell.

Rotorua was our next stop, and it proved a nice change from the continual and almost overwhelming immersion in incredible scenery that characterized our travels around the south island. Stunning natural settings is certainly what I dreamed of when planning our trip, but after a solid month of it, we both felt we couldn't absorb much more without just sitting in one place for a long while. Rotorua was still natural scenery, but different enough to break the streak.

Rotorua is an area of extreme and pervasive thermal activity, just another manifestation of the huge natural forces at work that have created and are still shaping New Zealand. There are hot springs, geysers, and boiling mud holes boasting colors so rich, so bright and magnificent that the mind can't quite grasp that the visual information its receiving is natural. We went for a relaxing dip in Kerosene Creek, so named for its slight smell. The entire stream was the temperature of a typical hot tub, and the sandy bottom got warmer the deeper you dug your feet. A little waterfall into a large bathing pool nestled in the trees provided a massage and the final touch on this unique little gem. Later that evening, we experimented with the Maori method of cooking using the steam vents of the area, slow-cooking our dinner using the "Hangi" at our camp ground.

With time winding down for us in mid March, we reluctantly returned to Auckland and spent a somewhat hectic five days selling our beloved Toyota campervan. Its an oldie, and a car that's older than many of its potential buyers looking for a sound vehicle to carry them around New Zealand can be a bit of a scare. We had the same sentiments before we bought it. As fate would have it, a mechanic bought the van on the spot without even getting inside it. His wife had wanted one for years and he knew he could work with this classic. It felt like a fitting exchange, since we knew the buyer would take care of it, keep it touring NZ. It served us very well and, now that I don't have to worry about selling it anymore, I can look back on it fondly for all the comfort and memories it provided us.

For the last 10 days, we chose to explore Northland, north of Auckland. Quaint towns, dramatic coastal views and remote beaches was what Northland was about for us. We camped on beaches almost every night, falling asleep to the waves and waking to sunrises with our feet in the sands. Further north, we kayaked in the iconic subtropical Bay of Islands in perfect late summer weather. One afternoon, we hiked up and across massive sand dunes, and boarded down them, cruising at high speeds and covering ourselves in sand. It was everywhere. Beyond civilization and at the tip of the north island, the experience of sitting in silence with the land and the seas at sacred Cape Reinga was something the pictures won't show.

Finally, we settled into the cosy Endless Summer Lodge, our first sense of home in many months. Spending a few nights in an actual house instead of the van, our tent, or a dorm-style hostel was restorative, and brought a glimpse of home just a few months away now. From the comfort of the Endless Summer Lodge, we explored our blooming surfing interests in Ahipara Bay. Well, to be honest we mostly got pounded by waves, but we did catch and ride a few! The beaches of New Zealand, and particularly those of the north island, were an unexpected surprise that filled out our final leg here, and once again demonstrated NZ's wide variety of landscapes. Northland was a spectacular way to go out.

On our last full day in Auckland, we walked to the top of Mt Eden, a small hill overlooking the city. From this vantage, the maze of suburban streets we'd been navigating seemed to make a bit more sense, helping me wrap my head around Auckland a bit before departing. But the prize of the afternoon was realizing that the whole city is dotted with small, dormant volcanoes, including the one on which we were standing. They're everywhere, and looking out across the land their shapes were unmistakeable. We had a picnic lunch and reflected on 3 months--a whole summer's worth--of traveling around this small little island nation of natural beauty. Liz commented on how strange it is that the gateway to a country where you've come to see the natural world is usually a city, thereby making up your first and last impressions of the place. I sat back and imagined the landscape we were looking out upon without all the buildings. In my mind's eye, it was no less stunning than the rest of what we'd experienced. I think this was New Zealand's spirit, shining through in the landscape and bidding us farewell.

Here are a couple photo sets from the last couple weeks. Click on the slideshow to see them in full size.

Nelson Lakes National Park

Rotorua and Northland

On Monday, March 30th, we fly to Bangkok, spend an undesireable night in the airport, and then fly on to Kathmandu, Nepal. We'll spend April trekking around Annapurna, and during May we'll join IMG's Sherpa Trek to Everest Base Camp. Nepal was a must for both of us, and we're looking forward to it, even it means we have to leave New Zealand.


At March 29, 2009 at 9:22 AM , Blogger Diana Riggs said...

Wow, what an incredible post and pictures! If it's possible, I love New Zealand even more through your visit. Have a safe flight, can't wait to see what Nepal brings your way.


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