January 14, 2007

Adventures in Middle Earth, Part One: The North Island

So... New Zealand. You look at a map and say to yourself, "Why, it's just straight south of Japan here... when am I ever going to be this close again?" And while you might be right that traveling to the Land of the Long White Cloud from the United States would be a very long endeavor, the fact is it's not all that short of a trip from Japan, either. You are flying more or less half-way around the world ... it just happens to be the other, other half. Something to remember for the next time I leave the northern hemisphere.

There were no direct flights — at least no cheap ones — to Auckland from our end of Japan so we went through Hong Kong. We packed everything into my yellow hiking bag and took the train up to Fukuoka, where we just managed to make it out to the international terminal and through security and to our gate right as final boarding was being called. Part of the delay was due to the check-in lady spending a good 20 minutes trying to figure out a way to seat my traveling companion, the lovely and for the purposes of this blog post momentarily pseudonymous Ms. Riddarfjarden, and myself together, which she was ultimately unable to do for the first leg of our journey. Instead I ended up pinned against the window by two Japanese salarymen until we stopped off in Taipei, Taiwan for a short layover. There we got out to stretch our legs in a very dingy looking airport lounge before returning for the remaining two hours or so to Hong Kong; having arrived at HK's shiny new airport we had a good seven or eight hours to pass until our next flight on to Auckland.

We had some Chinese food, debated the merits of shelling out 40 bucks for a shower and nap cubicle (which we ultimately passed on), wandered all over the concourse, and reveled in airport bookstores that actually had things in languages we could read. (Thank you, a hundred years of British colonialism.) Finally we were let onboard our 11-hour redeye to Auckland, although the cabin crew's insistence on feeding us dinner — it already felt like past midnight for us, and was 9:00 Hong Kong time — kept us up a good while longer. Cathay Pacific gives you a toothbrush and toothpaste in a little complimentary toiletries set, which you would think is a nice touch until you actually taste the toothpaste, which is vile. Be forewarned.

We finally touched down in Auckland the next day and passed through New Zealand customs, which is probably the most serious I've experienced in my travels to date — they take their "100% Pure" slogan (and their agriculture industry) pretty seriously. They did not, however, bother to open our bags. After changing some money we caught a shuttle bus into the city center where our hostel lay, a bus driven by a slightly manic old lady. I think my only major instance during the trip of not being able to penetrate the Kiwi accent was when she asked for 30 dollars for our tickets.. I'd claim sleep deprivation but she also almost drove off while another guy was still getting out of the bus so maybe just crazy will suffice. Our host at the B&B, an Indian woman whose name I don't recall, was as friendly and welcoming as the bus lady was intimidating and weird so we were able to do a good bit better after that. Total travel time, from out our door to falling onto the bed in Auckland — probably about 26 to 27 hours.

Fortunately they made the place inaccessible for a reason: it's too gorgeous a country to let all the rest of us go mucking it up. I suppose I shouldn't lavish too many superlatives — I'm sure there are hidden problems and issues that my short two-week passage left me oblivious to, and the weather for one was not exactly pristine for the full duration of our trip (I was dubious of this whole "summer in December" claim to begin with... it was warm, but the season having only just started, we were still in jackets or at least long sleeves most of the time) — but I did feel like New Zealand had a number of the qualities (a diverse range of culture and ethnicity, raw natural beauty, housing insulation) that I miss living here in Japan.

We saw a bit of that in our first two days in Auckland; after a recovery nap we walked through the Ponsonby area and the "K Road", which took us through several neighborhoods that reminded me of the outskirts of Boston in my days there. We had some tasty Malaysian food for our first meal in the country and explored a bit of the central Queen Street downtown area before making our way back to our B&B for the first night. The next day we returned to Queen Street, walking down its sloping length to the ferry port at the north side of the city to take a ferry across to the slightly tonier suburb of Devonport on the far side of the harbor. It dumped down a bit of rain at this point and then cleared off again, which it would continue to do frequently during the course of our trip. At Lonely Planet's recommendation we did a walk of two old fortified volcanic hills, Mt. Victoria and North Head; failing to heed our B&B host's recommendation from the morning to be careful of the sun, I got burnt. The old tunnels were cool, though, as were the (still unexplained) mushroom-capped vents on top of Mt. Victoria.

We returned to our place to look at car rentals and arranged to rent one through the recommendation of our host; from what we could tell it would be the cheapest option available and she did seem pretty nice. The wisdom of this approach was put to a bit of questioning the next morning when we were picked up in the car we would be driving, a mid-90s Nissan Sunny that pretty clearly would not be charging up the Southern Alps any time soon. The price was right, though, so we went with it; it took us a while to find our way out of the city but we eventually made it onto a scenic highway lined with jungle flora right out of Jurassic Park, which lead out west towards Karekare Beach, where the movie The Piano (which I haven't seen, but Ms. Riddarfjarden had) was filmed. Gorgeous rock formations and dramatic surf.

After a stop there we carried on northward to Waipoua Forest, where huge kauri trees grow; we got there just an hour or so before dusk, it taking longer to wind our way over the Northland hills on a single-lane highway than we had initially planned (this would the story of much of the first part of our trip, until we had to admit that the country is a good deal bigger than we'd planned and started adjusting our plans accordingly). The forest was nearly empty of fellow hikers though, and some of the trees were massive — the most breathtaking being Te Matua Ngahere (Father of the Forest), its trunk over 5 meters in diameter. Amazing.

By the time we had left the forest it was nearing darkness (which meant it was going on 8:00ish) and we stopped, more or less by default, in the tiny town of Opononi, which featured a closed gas station, closed restaurant, closed takeaway fish-and-chips place, and one open youth hostel, the "House of Harmony". We were able to get a dorm all to ourselves, the only other folks there being a Swedish couple (named Rodriguez?) in one of the other rooms. Dinner-less, we munched down a few crackers and raisins and called it a night.

The next day we made a U-turn and headed back down south, past Auckland and into the central part of the North Island. Our destination was Rotorua, a thermal hot springs area full of steaming lakes, volcanic vents, and the occasional geyser. Again, unfortunately, the driving took longer than we had hoped and we ended up getting into the city in the early evening, by which point many of the lake walks we had hoped to see were already closed; one option still open, though, was Tikitere: Hell's Gate, the English name coming from a visiting George Bernard Shaw. It was gray and rainy but that might've helped contribute to the blighted atmosphere.. plenty of bubbling pools and sulfurous gasses and other cool features that spread out over several acres of land. You could only imagine what the early Maori would have made of such a place.. surrounded by forest, it certainly felt like an otherworldly place. The abrupt death of Ms. Riddarfjarden's camera further contributed to a sense of forlorn-ness, but that might've just been the rain.

After getting dinner, it was going on 9:00, and we made it to the Kiwi Paka Youth Hostel just in time to have them switch off the reception room lights in our face. Turning around quickly, we snagged another dorm bedroom to ourselves in the Planet Nomad backpackers about ten minutes before it too would've closed the doors, luck that carried over the next day (Christmas Eve) when Ms. Riddarfjarden's camera spontaneously recovered from its earlier demonic possession — although our early 7:00 AM departure meant we missed out on recovering our $6 blanket deposit as the manager wasn't up yet when we attempted to return them. Having felt like we had been spending too much time getting from place to place and not enough time seeing the places themselves, we were keen to get an early start so that we could make it to Waitomo, an area to the southwest full of caves where we hoped to try some "black-water rafting" or similar adventures.

This time we did make it to our goal, with plenty of time to spare. There we took an abseiling adventure down 150-meter-deep Nathan's Canyon, with a friendly guide by the name of Jason. This was the first time I had ever tried anything like that and I'm pretty sure I managed to conquer whatever lingering fears of heights I may've had with it — I was a little unsteady at first but by the end I was pretty sure that the whole experience was one of the best things we did in NZ. When he tells you all it takes to stop yourself is hold your right leg out straight, it's hard to believe, but sure enough it works — we slid down slowly but surely through a deep crevice there in the hills, its sides lined with all manner of green creepers and ferns that served as home to the small glow-worm larvae that are Waitomo's other claim to fame. It being daytime, we couldn't see them there, but after going down a second time and having fun all over again, we went back to take a boat tour through the caves below that passed under cave ceilings illuminated by a constellation of thousands of glow-worms, whose soft shining light (reminiscent of a firefly's) attracts the even tinier insects they feed on. Beautiful.

We left Waitomo a little after 2:00 that afternoon and drove on to Napier, a town on the far east coast of the North Island that was almost totally leveled in an earthquake in 1931; when it was rebuilt, the popular Art Deco style was used in many buildings, giving it a unique architectural flavor. We got a place to stay in "Toad Hall" Backpackers (attached to the Willow Art Gallery) and dinner at "Hell Pizza" in the same building — their "Mordor" special, one of many diabolically-themed offerings, was pretty good. Much of the rest of town was closed for the holiday, though, so all that was left was to pick up a few groceries and return to the hostel for the night.

Christmas morning we were awoken with a present from the hostel proprietors — a rather nice calendar of New Zealand art. We breakfasted on grocery store pastries and took a walk along the Napier beachfront; everything being closed for Christmas morning, though, we didn't linger for too long before getting into the car and pushing south to Wellington. On the way, we made a detour to visit what is billed as the longest place name in the world: Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu. There's a sign there, and some sheep. Nice.

It was a good bit of driving (probably four or five hours) down from Napier to the southernmost big city on the North Island, and we were pretty tired when we pulled into windy Wellington. We parked the car and checked into the Cambridge Hotel, where we had made advance reservations, mindful of the holiday. Going back to pull the car closer to unload our bags, we found that it was... dead. The engine would grind and the dashboard flicker, but nothing turned over, no matter how much we revved the key. And unlike Ms. Riddarfjarden's camera, it was not going to be reviving any time soon; not wishing to ruin our Christmas evening, we resolved to worry about it tomorrow, and got good Chinese food and didn't worry about it.

The next morning, the car persisted in not starting, so we attempted to call the local rental branch — considering that the major national rental outfits have their branches primarily in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, and Picton (the port on the other side of the Cook Strait, at the top end of the South Island), this was about as fortuitous a breakdown as we could've hoped for; anywhere else and we probably would've had to call an auto breakdown service and wait out whatever repairs it took.

As a rule I loathe the car rental process — my number one cause of stress during my times running Habitat build trips back in Boston — so I suppose the response we got could've been much worse. Although the guy who came out to meet us was initially convinced it must've just been a drained battery (how we could've drained it in the five minutes it took us to walk into the hotel to check in, and back, I'm not quite clear) and he did indeed succeed in jumping the thing. He let it run for 10 minutes or so, gunned the gas a couple times, and shut it off; it promptly refused to start. He jumped it again, and after admonishing us to "let it run for 15 minutes", took off. Not wanting to chance things, we sat in the car for a half hour — so much for seeing anything of Wellington before we caught the ferry at 1:00 that afternoon — and let the battery "charge".

Completely unsurprisingly, once shut off the engine once again failed to respond to any attempts at starting it up. To his credit, the guy was pretty fast about getting us a replacement, an older Toyota model that despite its age ('94, I think) seemed to handle hills a good bit better than our recently departed Nissan; it lasted through the rest of the trip with no apparent problems. We made it onto the massive Bluebridge ferry south with only about a half hour to spare, but it was a pretty smooth journey and we were able to relax a bit over the next three hours onboard and plan out our adventures in the South Island.

... Which will be a story for next time. Until then, the full album of pictures is here; the South Island installment will be forthcoming shortly.

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