It stinks, but is oh soooo pretty!

Sitting within the Pacific Rim of Fire, the city of Rotorua is known for bubbling mud pools, shooting geysers and natural hot springs. As we planned our trip, we considered basing ourselves here but were warned about the pervasive odor of sulphur. It wasn’t awful but probably a good decision. And it was an easy hour’s drive from our place in Lake Taupo. We arrived the Wai-O-Tapu just in time for the 10am eruption of the Lady Knox Geyser. I couldn’t figure out how they could time this to the hour and found that they put detergent in the hole! The area was amazingly beautiful. I marveled at the bubbling mud pools and the Artists’ Palette was incredible.

The geothermal areas were/are important to the native Maoris and in Rotorua, you can visit villages to watch people use the boiling water to cook, bathe and warm their homes.

Tongarir-O NO!!!!

We read all the reviews describing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing — New Zealand’s #1 Day Walk and TripAdvisor’s #1 of 700 activities on the North Island; A life-changing experience not to be missed! (Lonely Planet); Lava flows, an active crater, steam vents, emerald-coloured lakes and magnificent views combine to make this an unforgettable walking journey. 

We’re right here. Is this something we should do?

We studied the guidelines:

  1. For the moderately fit and healthy (Frank swims every day. He’s had some issues with his knee but keeps it steady with a brace. I can walk forever.);
  2. You may feel oxygen deficiency (Frank and I have never had issues with this);
  3. Be prepared (We both have sturdy shoes, we could pack water, food and extra clothes in our back packs).

Finally, we studied reviews of people who had done it: Some challenging steep parts but you have never seen anything like this!; As a pretty fit 60+ year old (and I saw a good few more during the day!) I had a genuine sense of achievement when I completed the trek; Seriously an amazing walk, with every step worth the view at the top; Being of a moderate fitness level I found it challenging but not impossible and never felt like I wouldn’t be able to do; 10/10!! 

We batted it around some more. Could we handle a 12-mile walk? If we did, we could go early because it might take us longer than the 7 to 8 hour estimate. It looks incredible. It doesn’t sound too hard and we did that one big hike in Colorado, etc. etc. In the end, we decided to go for it. Frank double-checked his handy dandy weather app — sunny and warmer. Tomorrow would be the day we would hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing!

Note to self: When you need to talk through a decision for days to figure out if you should or shouldn’t do something, don’t. Thank goodness for the pictures because today (the day after the hike), all I can remember is that yesterday we did the stupidest thing we’ve ever done . . .

We headed out for the one-hour drive at 5:30am. Having chosen the option of leaving our car at the lot at the end of the trail, we took our pre-arranged shuttle to the trailhead. It was a little chilly but Frank and I were prepared and ready to go!

Although there were many people on the trail, the leisurely hike through the Mangatepopo Valley was quietly peaceful. We walked along a meandering stream surrounded by lava fields and lush vegetation. Majestic Mount Nguaruahoe was our backdrop as we walked along a meandering stream surrounded by lava fields and lush vegetation. The path was wide, easy to follow, even boardwalked in spots. The rising sun warmed the air and we soon shed a layer of clothing. We were so glad we decided to do this today!

As the valley rolled into a gentle climb, the vegetation became more scattered and the lava more prevalent. A group of portable toilets signaled our arrival at Soda Springs and the impending challenge ahead – 200m (or 656 ft) up the Devil’s Staircase. Quite aptly named, it was, how shall I put it(?), Hell. While Frank nimbly climbed the uneven track and accompanying steps, I huffed and puffed and climbed and rested, then huffed and puffed and climbed and rested. He waited for me and encouraged me until we finally reached the ridge of the South Crater. The views were beautiful but the fact that I could see the hikers below and realize how far I’d come gave me the push I needed to forge ahead.

South Crater turned out to be my “happy place.” For 15 glorious minutes, the trail was completely flat. I regained my breath as we reached a sign signaling the point of no return. STOP! Are you really prepared to continue your alpine crossing trip? Having regained my mojo, I was ready to rock n’ roll. The next section was described as difficult but short, with a time estimate of less than an hour. And then we would be at the top!

Difficult ascent? Try impossible ascent. The uneven, boulder-y track was steep with big drops off on both sides. Add a strong, chilly headwind and you get crazy SCARY! We had to figure out the best rocks to climb on and then hope they weren’t loose. One small section had a chain attached to the side of the hill to grab on to – the best part of the trek. It was well over an hour and a half of terror before we collapsed with exhaustion at the top of Red Crater Ridge. At 1,886m (or 6,187 ft), this was the highest point of the trek, as well as the halfway point. The crater, itself is stunning with its vibrant coloring. The sulfur smell makes you aware that the crater is still active. (We saw many signs warning of potential volcanic activity.)

We celebrated reaching the summit with lunch, thinking “It’s all downhill from here!” Little did we know…

We wandered over to the other side of the ridge. Below us, in the Central Crater, we were awed by the view of the vivid Emerald Lakes. What we saw next awed us even more — the path to get down to the lakes, our path, was straight down! The map said Easy Descent. The website which I am reading now says, “The descent from Red Crater requires some coordination and balance due to the volcanic ash and scree underfoot. From this point you will be descending just over 1000m in altitude most of which is a good steady gradient.” Can you say “Major understatement?!!!” Frank estimated the vertical drop at 200 yards. The ground was loose and those of us (95%) who didn’t have hiking poles were slipping and falling with each sliding step. I tried going down on my bum but the rocks were jagged. I tore my pants (providing a view of my right cheek to the hundreds who passed us later in the hike!). It was worse for Frank. He fell hard and dislocated his shoulder, rendering it nearly impossible to keep his balance for the remainder of the hike. He had expected some discomfort from his knee (particularly on the descent) but adding the shoulder to the mix was brutal.

As much as Frank waited for me on the way up, the roles were reversed on the way down. I could tell he was in intense pain with every step. The uneven track was torturous, a crossover of a rocky creek terrifying. We took our time.

After a climb to the North Crater, followed by a zig-zagging trail down the mountain, we reached the Ketetahi Hut (bathrooms) around 3:45pm. A sign told us it was only(?!!) two hours more to the car park. Who’s idea was this?!!

We had to finish. One step at a time. We walked and walked, resting on each large boulder we encountered. The brush turned to trees and at last we came to an opening with a sign – the carpark?!!! Umm, no. The sign said 45 minutes to the car park. In two hours, we had only come half way!

If you’ve ever had knee problems, you know that the only thing worse than going downhill is going down steps. Well, that’s what the remainder of the trail was made up of. Slowgoing, it was steps, uneven trail, steps, uneven trail. Will this trail ever end? Every time we went around a corner, there was another series of steps or another long, rocky path through the woods. The number of hikers passing us by dwindled. It was getting late.

Alone on the trail, we came to a fork with a sign: a symbol of two people, one with a periscope. I assumed it meant “lookout” so we followed the other path. After walking for a while, I began to second-guess my choice. What if it meant something else and I’ve made us walk all this way for nothing? I checked my phone and as expected, we didn’t have any service. The trail app I had downloaded didn’t work either. What if it gets dark? Panicking and praying, I left Frank to amble along, while I hurried ahead down the trail. Tears formed as I rounded a corner and saw the open space of the car park. I ran back to Frank, “We made it! It’s just around the corner!” Twelve and a half hours from when we started, we were finally sitting in our car driving home.

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing. New Zealand’s #1 Day Walk and #1 of the must-dos on the North Island? Yes. The sights were indeed spectacular (now that I look back on the pictures!) and the HIKE — not walk — is a definite must do for experienced hikers or athletic and fearless twenty-somethings. Life-changing? I have just removed hiking Kilimanjaro from my bucket list. Unforgettable? Most definitely.

Oh Deer! (and much more)

Frank was obsessed with some red deer we had seen. We couldn’t remember exactly where or when we saw them but Frank was determined to see them again. He found a YouTube video on a Kitenui Deer Farm near Taupo. Could this be the place? We drove there. It wasn’t. We saw no deer from the road. We drove down the long, wooded, gravel driveway and were approached by an older gentleman on a four wheeler. Frank explained what he was looking for and asked if the area was public. The man replied no, that he owned the land. Fully expecting him to direct us off the property, he introduced himself (Murray) and graciously invited us to pull over and he would show us some deer!

It turned out that Murray had a lot more to show us than just a few deer. We spent the next couple hours exploring some of his 500(!) acres of land, which included his art studio, an event space, some unique old airplanes (he even has an airstrip), his home and beautiful gardens (where we met his lovely wife Barbara), and finally, more animals than we ever could have imagined!

In Murray’s studio, we viewed his black and white oil paintings of the different deer species which inhabit New Zealand, as well as a few of his incredible life-size concrete and bronze animal sculptures. Several of the sculptures are exhibited in cities around New Zealand, including Taupo and another city we will be visiting (Te Anau).

We toured a rustic building where weddings and corporate events are held. The dining area is decorated with many rifles and is illuminated with little Christmas lights, which gives the space a more intimate and old fashioned feel. The Antler Room has hundreds of (you guessed it!) antlers. Did you know that deer shed their antlers and then grow a new set? Murray is fascinated by American Indians and is an American movie buff. He shared with us that Burt Reynold’s had dined there!

We climbed in Murray’s truck and were treated to a safari! Down the dirt road, in and out of gates, we viewed several types of deer. Some of them were more timid than others but a couple came right up to us! There was one herd of small gray deer, which were being quarantined prior to being shipped off to South Africa. In addition to deer, Murray has two American bison and a zebra! Frank and I had a lot of questions and Murray was a wealth of knowledge. We asked him if he had to worry about predators.

Did you know that New Zealand has barely any native mammals or reptiles? Although they have many unique native fish, insects, birds, lizards and frogs (no snakes!), the country’s only native mammals are bats, whales and seals! All other species — i.e. sheep, cattle, deer — were introduced. Farmers like Murray never have to worry about predatory coyotes, bears or bobcats!

Our “tour” closed with a stroll around Murray and Barbara’s beautifully blooming “backyard” garden. Murray explained that they had purchased the acreage more than 30 years ago. At the time, there wasn’t a tree on it and no one wanted it. Now it’s filled with life — trees, plants, animals, even two of their nine grandchildren have homes on the property. Murray and Barbara have transformed it into a truly incredible place. We were so touched he took the time to share it with a couple of strangers who wandered in off the road!

Below are a few photos from Kitenui Deer Farm and from our drives around the North Island…

Craters, Cascades and Carvings

As we get ready to leave beautiful Taupo, I want to share a few other unique spots close to “home.”

Christmas in Christchurch

As the faithful approached the altar for Christmas Eve communion, the floors vibrated and the chandeliers swayed. The crowd began singing Silent Night when the lady next to Nick showed him her Ipad screen – a 4.0 earthquake! The verse, “Angels quake at the sight,” will now represent something very different to me! No one else seemed particularly concerned, just another tremor in Christchurch.

Christchurch has recently experienced two major earthquakes – one in September 2010 and another in February of 2011. Both caused major damage but, though less in magnitude, the 2011 earthquake resulted in much more destruction and 185 deaths. Driving around, you see crumbled buildings everywhere. The whole city seems to be one big construction site. That said, there is much beauty to be found among the devastation — pop-up parklets, murals, touching memorials, even the colorful shipping containers that shore up walls or are stacked to create a shopping mall! You find yourself in awe of the people that live in Christchurch and their tenacity to rebuild and move on. It was a very special place to spend Christmas and to count one’s blessings.

Frank and I arrived in Christchurch, our first city on New Zealand’s South Island, on Christmas Eve eve. Nick and Maddie were to fly in the next day from LA. Trying to preserve some semblance of holiday normalcy, our plans were to cook a couple nice meals at “home.” After dropping our bags, we made our way to the grocery store. It was pretty much what you’d expect on the day before a holiday — countless shoppers, picked over stock – What? No cloves?! Cornstarch is corn flour?! You end up making due and it all works out fine.

On Christmas Eve morning, we picked up our order from the local butcher. The place we rented had no decorations so Frank and I stopped at a dollar store for some holiday cheer — garland, ornaments, poppers. I whipped up a batch of Christmas cookies. NOW we were ready for visitors! We were so happy Nick and Maddie could come spend the holidays with us. It’s sad Andy couldn’t get away but he had fun visiting Jenny in Montana. It was a very different Christmas for all of us. After an early dinner and the very eventful Christmas Eve mass, the four of us went to Latimer Square for Caroling in the Park. Although it was (relatively) cool, the park radiated with holiday warmth–families gathered on picnic blankets, kids running around, hand-held candles and, of course, a band with singers — young and old.

Christmas morning the four of us rose early to help set up a luncheon at the Christchurch Mission. The large crew of friendly and happy volunteers quickly transformed an empty tent into a festive venue for over 600 guests! Feeling so fortunate to be here in New Zealand, it was nice to play a small part in helping to make someone else’s holiday a little happier. And being the holiday, we had the city streets to ourselves for exploring. Nick and Maddie took several long runs, getting acclimated to looking right versus left for oncoming traffBoxing Day, the day after Christmas, is also a major holiday in New Zealand. In addition to being a big shopping day, Christchurch was hosting a large cricket tournament. We decided to get out of town, heading to the scenic Banks Peninsula and the charming French town of Akaroa (pics below.) The next day, we explored Christchurch. Mike and Marianne Daley (friends of a friend of ours from back home) had us all over for morning tea at their lovely home in the hills of Christchurch. Marianne was originally from the States and had worked at Gesu (our church in Milwaukee). It was fun hearing about her life as a Kiwi and her experiences during the earthquakes. Mike, a native, gave us great tips for our journey around the South Island. He also gave us a suggestion for a nice restaurant in the Botanical Gardens, the final stop on the day’s tour and on our fascinating stay in Christchurch.

 

Turquoise Tekapo

Lake Tekapo is a stunning, 32-sq. mile, light turquoise lake nestled in the shadow of the Southern Alps. Our place sits on the end of a point overlooking the lake, a block away from the tiny one-street, two-block “town.” The view is spectacular and like nothing we’ve ever seen. As pretty as it is in the daytime, it is also incredible at night. Lake Tekapo is part of a UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve, making it the perfect spot for stargazing. We went out last night (late because it isn’t fully dark until after 11!)  and walked around. I have NEVER seen so many stars!

Buses of tourists make pitstops on the road in front of our house for quick photos of the lake and the tiny Church of the Good Shepherd. They also tramp up the front lawn to take pictures of each other in our patch of colorful lupines, which dot the roadsides and are in full bloom this time of year. Lake Tekapo is in ultimate contrast to the crumbed concrete of Christchurch and the perfect place for a couple days of rest and relaxation.

The Wonder of Milford Sound

Milford Sound is often referred to as one of the most beautiful places on earth and always seems to make the list of “Places to See Before You Die” (I know, nice thought, right?). Rudyard Kipling even described it as the 8th Wonder of the World. But knowing no trip to New Zealand is complete without a visit, our next stop was Fiordland, in the southwest corner of the South Island.

Milford Sound can be explored by land or air. Our plan was to base ourselves in the small town of Te Anau, drive a couple hours through the Fiordland National Park to the harbor and then board a boat for a 2-hour tour of the sound.

I was looking forward to shooting some great photos — anticipating blue skies and soaring mountains reflected in still, crystal clear waters. That wasn’t meant to be. On the day of the tour, we awoke to a cloudy downpour. November to March are the area’s warmest months. Temperatures are moderated by a constant sea breeze.

So what is Milford Sound & Fiordland like on a wet day? The locals say it’s even better than on a clear day. When it rains, the landscape is more dramatic – the steep rock faces stream with thousands (yes, thousands!) of waterfalls, mist hangs around the tops of the mountains and rivers and streams rage. We arrived prepared with rain jackets. Gray skies resulted in less than stunning photos but trust me when I say this place was incredible! We discovered that the moisture is what makes Milford Sound so lush and beautiful, certainly living up to its billing as one of the Wonders of the World.

 

 

 

 

Forgotten but unforgettable

Over half of all Kiwis (New Zealanders) travel during their summer holidays, especially over Christmas and New Year’s. Decent travel accommodations in many of the more popular destinations can be difficult to come by so we decided to make the most of it by opting for the road less traveled. We made a loop from Milford Sound through an area called Southland. Southland spans 13,000 sq. miles and has a population of only 96,000 inhabitants. What it lacks in population, it more than makes up for in scenery and wildlife.

We began our south southern adventure in Te Anau. The house we rented was a bit dated — and unusual — but clean. It served us well as we visited the incredible Milford Sound (see separate post) and Fiordland National Park. Nick and Maddie were able to tour some glowworm caves and we celebrated New Year’s Eve along the lakefront watching fireworks, eating awful corndogs and drinking beer.

We left Te Anau, traveling along the “Southern Scenic Route,” visiting the Scottish city of Dunedin and settling for the night at Kaka Point. From Kaka Point, we began our journey along the Catlin Coast, exploring New Zealand’s southeast “forgotten corner.” “Forgotten corner” could refer to many things: a place that forgot to hook up to the modern world (unreliable internet, poor cell service); a place that forgot to pave the roads (Frank was sure our rented station wagon wouldn’t survive!); or even a place that forgets tourists might be confused (Nick and I were on the beach when a siren started blaring. Could it be a tsunami? We ran off the beach. Turns out it was a call for the volunteer firefighters to head to the station for a fire!). But in reality, these “inconveniences” only added to the magic of this untouched, truly UN-forgettable area of rugged cliffs, sandy bays and encounters with penguins and sea lions!!!

 

Adventures in Queenstown

Hello Wanaka

After sharing a few of our Queenstown/Arrowtown favorites with Jenny, it was time to continue our journey around the South Island. We drove north to Lake Wanaka. The road wound sharply over a mountain (thank you CVS Vertigo-less!) and through a valley until we arrived at the beautiful alpine lake nestled in the midst of towering mountains. The upscale area is a year-round magnet for New Zealanders who come to ski in the winter and fish, hike and swim in the summer.

Knowing we’d be staying for a few days, we went through our routine: Check out the place and see if we need to add staples to our grocery list (i.e. salt/pepper, olive oil, toilet paper); Frank finds a pool for his daily workout (we’ve been lucky in that each town we’ve visited has had at least one); we hook up our adaptors and connect our phones/computers to the internet. Then it’s off to the grocery store for our first exploration of town.

Jenny was in shock when she experienced the throngs of people in the grocery store. As I mentioned, it’s vacation time in New Zealand. RVs are everywhere and kiwis flock to their summer homes. The restaurants and grocery stores are filled with hungry people. Especially when we are staying long term, we eat many of our meals “in.” Lake Wanaka was no different. The restaurants we did visit (via local recommendations), however, were very good.

The weather and the area were both beautiful. Our original plan was to relax for a couple of days but we decided we couldn’t let Jenny come to NZ without seeing Lake Tekapo or Milford Sound. It made for a busier schedule but Jenny was a trooper—and we certainly didn’t mind seeing these wonderful places again!