And so the Trans-New Zealand journey begins. We flew back to Auckland from New Caledonia on November 16, spent a quick night in the City, and met Mark’s parents the next day after their l-o-n-g flight from Michigan. For some unknown reason hotel rooms were suddenly almost nonexistent in Auckland; Mark had been watching options, there were a bunch, and then … poof … all of a sudden the city was all but booked. But we found one – another hotel with a washer and dryer; I’m starting to like this New Zealand trend – and then had a great dinner. Soul is a restaurant/bar down on the waterfront where one of the bartenders makes great Vespers. Unfortunately he wasn’t working but the martinis were still good and the little plates of bar food were small but amazing. So we were set for starting out the next day with Mark’s parents.
We met them at the airport, loaded our luggage in a rental car (no small feat for four bags when two of them are big enough to hold nearly everything Mark & I own), and took off for Rotorua. This is one of New Zealand’s major attractions, a land of volcanic activity, bubbling hot springs, and flowing geysers. We got in too late to do anything interesting but the next morning, on the drive out, we stopped at Wai-O-Tapu, a private park of geysers and that kind of stuff. Definitely a little cheesy; the geyser goes off promptly at 10:30 AM, but only after they add chemicals to make it blast off. Still, there was a nice hour-long hike out into the lava fields with some gorgeous spring-fed lakes.
From there we headed to Lake Taupo, the biggest lake in New Zealand. The plan has been to cross the North Island pretty quickly so we can take a ferry across to the South Island and spend most of our time there. Our ferry ticket was booked for November 21, so we have to hurry down to Wellington pretty quickly. Unfortunately very shortly before we got to New Zealand there was an earthquake on the South Island, so we’re not too certain what conditions will be there. The good news, though, is that although the ferry quit running for a few days, the day of our reservation is the first day it’s running again.
At any rate, one of the great things about this trip through New Zealand is the beautiful scenery: lakes, hills, mountains, greenery. And cows and sheep. Lots and lots of cows and sheep. But a key reason to travel in New Zealand is for the great hiking, or tramping, as it’s known down here. So stop two was in Turangi right off Tongariro National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and even one of the 1,000 Places to See Before You Die (it’s a book…).
They best hike in the park, often described as the best day hike in all of New Zealand, is the 12-mile Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Spectacular scenery, steaming vents and springs, moonscapes and amazing views. Or so they say, at least. We planned on spending two days in Turangi so we could do the hike on our full day in the area. We discovered, though, that the weather was going to be terrible. It had snowed pretty heavily just the day or two before we got there, an unusual late-spring storm. And it was going to cold and wet and windy for the day we had available.
Still, we figured what the hell. At the least we could drive with Mark’s parents up to the trailhead. If it was awful we’d just go for a drive. Instead it was … marginal. Not too wet or cold to not
hike tramp, but probably too cold and wet to really enjoy it. You only live once, though – or at least you likely only get to Tongariro National Park once – so we decided to give it a go.
The good news was that the trail was relatively empty; the commercial tours had all canceled and while we certainly saw other hikers it wasn’t nearly as crowded as it normally would be on a Saturday. And the first four or five kilometers were beautiful in their own way: certainly foggy and wet, but nice. Then we got to the point where the Alpine Crossing part got going in a serious way. First it was just a little more difficult; the trail a little rougher, the elevation a little steeper. As we got higher, though, it got wetter. And windier. And then even wetter and even windier. And steeper. At one point we seriously considered just calling it quits and going back; the brutal winds were getting dangerous. Turning back, though, would have been turning into the wind. So we kept going.
Suffice it to say we survived, or we wouldn’t have been able to post these pictures. There were moments, though, when it didn’t seem this was the wisest thing we’d ever done. With essentially no visibility we had no idea how long the climb would go or when we’d cross the pass and (probably) get out of the wind. So we kept going up, the snow getting thicker, the wind getting stronger. At one point we were crossing a relatively narrow ridge, unable to see much, not knowing what was ahead, but confident that if we fell off in either direction we’d fall a long way. Finally we started the decline and within seconds the wind fell away. Still cold and wet, still too much snow, but at that point you know the worst is behind you.
All in all it was exciting, exhausting, and – best of all – behind us. Mark’s parents picked us up at the end of the trail, where a warm car seemed like heaven. Until we got back to the hotel and a hot shower really was heaven.
The next morning we got back in the rental car and drove to Wellington, New Zealand’s capital. Again, a beautiful drive, this time with gorgeous snow-capped mountains in Tongariro National Park in view for a good part of the drive. I kept remembering, of course, that the beautiful snow-capped mountain had been a hellish ordeal the day before, but now that it was sunny and we were in a warm car it looked fabulous.
Another pretty unique experience during the drive: I got a speeding ticket, going 115 in a 100 zone. Those are kilometers, though, so essentially I was going 71 mph in a 62 mph zone. I’m pretty sure it’s the first speeding ticket I’ve gotten since 1973, when I was a brand new driver in a three-speed manual transmission Ford that was older than I was. I’m hoping to go another 43 years before another speeding ticket.
After slowing down, then, we got into Wellington too late to do too much except for lunch and then shopping for a new iPhone. The one casualty of the hike was that when I realized my iPhone was getting wet I put it in what I thought was a waterproof pocket of my rain jacket, a little compartment seemingly custom-built for a cell phone. What probably happened, though, is that the phone was wet when I put it in there and so it just stewed in the moisture for the last four hours of the hike … and died. That’s why there are no pictures of Mark on the hike; they were on my dead iPhone. Sad. I do have a new iPhone 7, though, so it’s not the worst tragedy ever. [Ed. note: A few days later my old iPhone revived enough to recover those pictures which I added here, explaining why now there are pictures of Mark on the hike.]
From here we take a ferry across to the South Island. We’d planned on working our way down the west coast, but that appears to have been the most severely damaged part from the earthquake; on the flight from New Caledonia Mark talked to someone who said the main highway had been destroyed. So we’ll probably figure something else out. At least this is better than our planned trip to Nepal a couple years ago when an earthquake shut the country down and we couldn’t even get in. It will add a little taste of uncertainty to our generally uncertain ramblings.