Monday, January 30, 2012

Wellington, New Zealand

 Not all i-Sites were this cute

The documentation available to tourists in New Zealand is nothing short of amazing. In addition to that, almost every town, regardless of size, has an i-site - a comprehensive store front that is staffed with knowledgeable people, computers, brochures and guides - all of it for free. Some even sell souvenirs. The staff will make reservations on your behalf, answer questions, offer recommendations or even check the weather for you. One of the guides we picked up has a list of all the campgrounds in New Zealand and we were pleased to find there was a place to camp right in downtown Wellington.

Randy and Jenny of S/V Mystic

We found Rowena's Backpacker's Hostel without any trouble and I realized that it had been many years since I had stayed in a place like Rowena's. In fact, I don't think I had ever stayed in a place like Rowena's. Almost looking like an huge, old, run-down home, it sets behind another house and is accessed by a narrow alley that runs up the steep hill. In the very back is a small patch of grass where they allow tents to be pitched. It's almost like camping in someone's backyard. There must be forty rooms in the building, with either 2, 4 or 6 people to a room. The toilets and showers are unisex and the kitchen is communal. Our first night there we were checking out the kitchen and we ran into some friends that had crossed the Pacific the same time we did. It was great to see them and we spent a lot of time swapping stories.

Botanic Garden, Wellington
Te Papa Museum, Wellington

Yesterday we took in the Museum of New Zealand and then got fish and chips at a popular pub. Today we walked from Rowena's through downtown and it had been a long time since we walked through a major urban city on a Monday morning. There were thick crowds everywhere, the espresso bars were all packed and the traffic jamming. We took Wellington's only cable car up to the botanical gardens. It was a beautiful day and the flowers were spectacular. The path wound it's way through forests, gardens and herbs. The trail ended at the Norfolk Rose Garden, which has who-knows-how-many varieties of roses but virtually all of them in full bloom. Right next to the rose garden is Anderson Park.

Normally, a cricket park wouldn't attract too much attention from us except there were dozens of American flags attached to the chain link fence and loud rock 'n roll coming from a loudspeaker. We wandered in and were greeted by a woman who works for the American embassy who said that this was an event to welcome the American rugby team. She invited us to stay for sausages and soft drinks as the team was due to arrive in just a few minutes. There were only about thirty or so people milling about but the place was decorated festively with bunting and flags. There were a bunch of brand new rugby balls lying around and I picked one up and began to toss it around as if it were a football.

American Olympic Rugby Team

Just before the rugby team arrived, a group of attractive young women dressed in red, white and blue sparkling skimpy costumes showed up. Just as the team's vans drove on to the field, the girls in costume broke into a cheer. Frankly, it was a little pathetic but it wasn't their fault - they had obviously missed out on the training they needed. Regardless, the American World Rugby Cup Team climbed out of their vans and assembled in some sort of order. A man wearing a sports coat and an American Rugby baseball cap began to speak into a microphone. His name is David Huebner.

David Huebner is the American ambassador to New Zealand. After he introduced the team's coach (who said very little), he asked the attractive cheer leaders to do another cheer and they did the same one they had done earlier. I guess there was supposed to be more fanfare, more people, more excitement but there was very little. It appeared that it was over as soon as it had started. Ambassador Huebner was walking by me and I said, "Uh, Mr. Ambassador? I'd like to introduce myself . . .". Ruthie and I engaged him for somewhere between five and ten minutes, talking mostly about the South Island and New Zealand wines (he said that most New Zealand wineries are owned by Americans). He was very gracious and didn't appear to be hurried. We exchanged cards. As it turns out, he was the first openly gay ambassador appointed by President Obama and only the third openly gay ambassador in US history. As we were leaving the field (my brand new rugby ball signed by all of the American rugby team under my arm) we noticed the stretch BMW with the two Americam flags mounted on the front fenders and the two very large bodyguards waiting patiently behind the building.

From there we walked to the New Zealand House of Representatives but we had missed the tour. We walked back to Rowena's via the waterfront, stopping for a beer on the way. I have fallen in love with yet another New Zealand city.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Tongariro Alpine Crossing, Continued

(Editor's Note: I can't figure out how to add to my previous post using my iPad. Please forgive my technical ignorance.)
 Mount Tongariro

It was cold and dark when the alarm on our cell phone went off at 0500. I trundled up to the toilets and came back, shivering and huddling over the little space heater in the cabin. I made coffee for me and tea for Ruthie using our single-burner camp stove in the cabin. It was just getting light outside as we made our way up to the bus stop, all our gear and food stuffed into our cheap and funky knapsacks. The other hikers and we stood around, stomping at the ground as we waited for the bus. No one spoke as the modern bus drove down the highway towards our drop off point. The clouds around the base of Mount Tongariro were glowing pink with the first rays of the morning sun but the top of the peak was cloud-free, allowing us a good view of the snow-covered top.
Trail Head
Usually the Holiday Park only has one shuttle per day, however, the Crossing had been closed the previous day due to bad weather and so were two days worth of hikers on this Saturday. Add to that a three-day weekend (Auckland Day on Monday) plus a summer weekend and the number of people making this famous New Zealand Great Walk was in the hundreds. At the drop off point the driver gave us some final instructions: Expect winds of 60 kph at the top with below freezing temperatures. Don't turn around and try to come back from where you've come - you'll be walking into the wind. The last bus is at 1630 - that gives you ten hours to cover twenty kilometers and a 1,000 meters of elevation gain.

The wind was calm as we started up the trail which was quite flat at first. Because this is a relatively active volcanic area, there are no trees and only the sparsest of vegetation. Even though I was was walking, I struggled to stay warm as we were still in the shadows of the ridges we had yet to climb. After about four kilometers, we approached the first steep section of the hike. Like many of the hiking trails in New Zealand, someone had gone through tremendous time and expense to install well-made wooden steps to get the hikers through the steep parts. By the time we reached the top of the ridge, I had stripped down to just my t-shirt and jeans but was forced to bundle up immediately once we stopped for a break. From there, we walked across the crater of a dormant volcano, the flat, smooth ground a welcome respite from the steep stairs.

The View from Red Crater of Mt. Ngauruhoe
Mt. Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies

Now we faced the second steep part but this time there were no stairs. The wind had started to fill in and it seemed to be getting colder despite the fact that there was bright sunshine. In places the path narrowed to just a few inches wide and I was forced to take my frozen hands out of my jacket pockets in order to hold on to the rocks as we climbed up the ridge to Red Crater - a bad slip here could have spelled disaster. The going was slow and the howling wind made my nose run continuously. We both had to take frequent stops but we finally made it to the precarious top where we had spectacular views of the mountains that were used in the Lord of the Rings movies. As we started back down, we got an excellent birds-eye view of the bright green Emerald Lakes with the steam from geothermal vents rising from their edges. Although it was only 10 in the morning, we stopped for lunch of salami, cheese, nuts and dried fruit. We each drank a liter of water.

Emerald Lakes with steam from geothermal vents

The balance of the trip was far less exciting or arduous but we didn't get to the pickup location until about 2 in the afternoon even though we walked steadily with few rest stops. One group of young people who made the crossing with us applauded when they saw us finish. I think they were privately worried that they were going to have to go back up and carry us out of there. "You didn't think us old folks were going to make it!" I said to their cheers. Our bus back to the Holiday Park arrived on time and our fellow hikers were far more animated on the way back even though everyone was exhausted. Ruthie fell asleep at 7pm and I was in bed not much later.

I got some great photos but I'll have to wait to post them until I can get to a regular computer as it's not possible to do from the iPad.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

 Huka Falls

As our trusty minivan takes us southward through the North Island in New Zealand, we continually garner new appreciations for this island country. The main north-south road is often just two lanes as multiple lanes in each direction are unnecessary - although they still call it a 'motorway'. Mostly we're on secondary and tertiary roads while many of the best campgrounds are found after a long drive down a dirt road.  A couple of days ago, State Highway 1 took us to Taupo, a small town at the north end of Lake Taupo, the country's largest lake. The Waikato River drains off the huge lake and one of the first things it does is creating Huka Falls. Here the river runs deep and narrow, forcing huge quantities of water through a natural rock sluice box. The rumbling it makes shakes the ground.

Late that afternoon, we found a Holiday Park (something like a KOA) just outside of town, barbecued hamburgers stuffed with blue cheese and tried to get some sleep in our little tent. Even though our neighbors a few feet away tried to keep quiet, it was a lot noisier than we were used to.

 Our Cabin at Discovery Lodge in Whakapapa

The following day we drove south again and this time found a Holiday Park in the Tongariro National Park. However, the weather was lousy with rain and cold so instead of pitching our tent, we chose to rent a small cabin - I mean very small as there isn't room for much besides the double bed. Toilets, showers and kitchen facilities are about a 100 meters away. The other argument for a room instead of the tent is that we decided to take advantage of the Holiday Park's service of shuttling guests to the start of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing - the bus leaves at 6:15am.

Sorry, folks, I'll have to finish this later. The iPad's battery is almost dead and there's only one outlet in the room. Right now the space heater is connected to that one outlet and Ruthie won't let me unplug it!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sweet Home Away From Home

New Zealand Summer Attire
After six short holiday weeks in the U.S., I am back in New Zealand!  I had a wonderful stay in California and zigzagged from socal to norcal by car and plane.  My first thought?  How could it take just twelve hours of flying over the Pacific to cross the blue water that took us a year to sail through?   As we say…. Nothing goes to weather like a 747!  Really though, twelve hours was not long enough to prepare me (after living in small, third world villages for a year) for navigating the security lines in LAX at 6:00 a.m.  There were more people in that line, at that time of the morning, than I had been with in one place in over a year!

My second thought?  The livin’ in the U.S. is easy!  The stores have everything and anything you could possibly want!  Choices are overwhelming!  Traveling to any destination you want  is easy!  The internet is fast!  The streets are big.  The houses are big.  The stores are big and bright. Restaurants are everywhere! Schools and colleges are everywhere.  Access to information is easy.  Life is fast.  People are on the street day and night.  People are out and about every day of the week.  No rest on Sundays!

The funny thing?  After just a couple of days, I was right back in to life in  the U.S.A. fast lane, just as if I had never spent the last year traveling at six knots per hour!  I was driving 80 mph on the freeway cursing people that were going too slow!  Crazy!  What did I learn?  That the human species is very flexible!  We do what needs to be done!  We can adapt at will and as necessary.  Oh yes, and that there is No Place Like Home!

OK- back to the New Zealand summer- which is certainly colder than the San Diego winter!  Our first order of business was to order a flat white and shop the after Christmas sales for camping and tramping gear.  We are now prepared for freedom camping as well as Holiday Parks.  Since we haven’t camped in a long time, we figure we better do some practice camping before we set off into the wilds of the south island (believe it or not, life on Rutea is a step up from camping!).  That way, if our shopping list was optimistically short, we can hit up a camping store or a five star hotel in Auckland (don’t tell Neal I said that) to get appropriately prepared.  (I take back what I said about being totally adaptable..)

In the mean time, we are waiting for the evening high tide so we can motor down the river (without running aground) to Mcleod Bay where we will anchor off of a sand bar (Mac Donald Bank-in the middle of the bay) which will dry at low tide tomorrow noon and host an anniversary party for our Kiwi friends, Blue Moon.  Good thing the sun doesn’t set until 9:00 p.m.  Good thing it is not raining… yet…

Neal spent December working on Rutea and has the boat looking spotless!  He prepared a rack of lamb for my return dinner and bought champagne!  Rutea looks and feels like every bit of home that Orchard Avenue exudes.  Of course I am readjusting my spatial requirements, walking to the heads for showers and laundry and slowing back down to one or two projects a day, but this is also home.  I take my tea in the cockpit every morning and watch a flock of ducklings paddle by.  The river bank is lined with kids and Dad’s with fishing poles.  Cruiser friends stop by for boat project advice and sympathy.  The weather is still a huge topic of conversation as is next year’s cruising route.  It’s a sweet home, away from home!

R of Rutea