a blog about seeing the world

Archive for April, 2012

49 reasons to fly home

Well, the day has come at last for this trip of ours to come to an end. Among many other things, travel allows you to appreciate what makes home, home. This is a quick list of the many things we are looking forward to in the days, weeks, and months ahead. Having fit in well below goldfish crackers and barely above grilled hot dogs, our family and friends should take note that this is in no particular order.

  1. Annie’s mac and cheese
  2. A pint of Heady Topper
  3. A pint of TLA from American Flatbread
  4. A flatbread from American Flatbread
  5. Cabot cheese
  6. The price of gasoline
  7. The price of alcohol
  8. A hot, green summer
  9. A crisp, colorful autumn
  10. A cold, snowy winter
  11. A dresser full of different clothes
  12. People speaking English the way we speak it
  13. Being a local
  14. Maple trees and maple syrup
  15. Gerard’s sourdough bread
  16. Good bagels
  17. The view of Mt. Mansfield from our front window
  18. Our favorite swimming holes
  19. American sports on television
  20. Baseball on the radio
  21. Goldfish crackers
  22. Being able to have a campfire when you go camping
  23. Kettle brand kettle chips
  24. Rolling hills covered in trees
  25. Fireflies
  26. Wiffleball
  27. Friends
  28. Family
  29. Grilled hot dogs
  30. Large pizzas that are actually large
  31. Having a house
  32. Seeing animals other than sheep
  33. Farmhouses
  34. Good mexican food
  35. Fast, free internet
  36. A night out in Burlington
  37. Thunderstorms
  38. Accurate weather forecasts
  39. Having a job
  40. Having money
  41. Men wearing shorts that cover their white thighs
  42. Cheerios
  43. Christmas in winter
  44. Thanksgiving
  45. The 4th of July
  46. Being able to forget that the sport of cricket exists
  47. Road trips to Maine
  48. Pandora radio
  49. Living in a country where rat tails are not considered fashionable

We do have several more things to share here before our lives slide into un-bloggable routine, but it will have to wait till we are on the couch stuffing our faces with a nice fat bowl of Cheerios.

Along the edges

For the final four weeks of our trip, we set out to fill in the blanks of our New Zealand map and explore the sandy edges and green interior of the nearly subtropical North Island. While the South Island is famous for the Southern Alps and the accompanying awe-inspiring scenery, it quickly became clear that the North Island’s beaches are second to none in this corner of the Pacific.

At the northern tip of New Zealand, the road ends at a dramatic curve of cliffs dropping into the ocean. The Indian Ocean and Tasman Sea meet just offshore in a frothy line of clashing waves. For the Maoris, this was both a place of creation and the point where the dead enter the spirit world — an impressive spot to gaze across the water.

The far north also holds relics of a time when New Zealand had no human inhabitants. Massive kauri trees fill the forests here, not impressively tall by redwood standards but enormously wide and undeniably ancient — some of them are more than 2,000 years old.

At night, we crept silently through the forest listening for the telltale piercing call of New Zealand’s beloved icon, the kiwi. We could hear a couple of them calling to each other somewhere in the pitch black forest, but knew the chances of one wandering right next to the path were extremely slim. Just as we were heading back to our tents, we heard a rustling in the bushes, exactly like a long beak probing the undergrowth for bugs. Quickly flashing on our headlamps, we spotted a small feathery back before it melted back into the night.

As we dropped Alex off at the Auckland airport for his flight home to Canada, an incessant drizzle and a forecast for a week of rain almost made us wish that we could join him. But, if there is one thing we have learned it’s to never trust a New Zealand weather forecast. A day’s drive led to the rugged and little traveled coastline of the East Cape, and the rain clouds were nowhere to be found. Kayaking through an aquamarine playground of rocky shores and roasting marshmallows over an open fire (a novelty here in NZ) proved an idyllic way to take advantage of the weather.

Afternoon rays fall to the left of White Island, New Zealand’s most active volcano.

This corner of New Zealand is Maori country, and further down the coast in gathering clouds we pulled up to St. Mary’s Anglican Church in the town of Tikitiki. The church blends Christian themes and Maori design — even the stained glass is cast in traditional black, white and red Maori patterns, and six ancient deities support the lectern. A husband and wife were practicing music for the next day’s Easter service, and she spoke to us for a while about the church interior and the struggles to keep this town of 200 alive. Most of those left are older, she said, and it these days it’s hard to keep the young people here. This weekend was the school reunion and old pupils had returned from far and wide to celebrate the school’s 125th anniversary.

Eventually, the predicted rain caught up with us. Eastwoodhill Arboretum, a 300-acre park with thousands of tree varieties, was a perfect spot for two damp nights. We wandered miles of peaceful paths under the familiar branches of maples, oaks, birches and chestnuts, just showing the first blushes of fall color.

A fantail says hello.

After a couple days, the sun returned, and it was back to the beach to try our hand on a borrowed (thank you Natalie!) surfboard. We took brief and exhausting turns paddling out and getting battered around by waves that were much to large and sloppy for our skill set. We finally found a mellower break in Gisborne, and Nate managed to stand up once.

A couple hours inland, a large and untouched block of native forest makes up Te Urewera National Park and Whirinaki National Forest. After the recent rains, the tree ferns and mosses were a brilliant green, and we walked along spongy paths under a canopy of jungly vegetation. We are going to miss these forests!

The Coromandel Peninsula is a favorite vacation spot of just about every Kiwi we’ve met, and for good reason. The peninsula is lined with unbelievably gorgeous coasts, beaches, and bright green sheep paddocks. At this late time of year, we barely had to share it with anyone.

Just off the main road, Otama beach is a long arc of white sand, backed by sand dunes and rust-colored cliffs. We walked up and down the long, empty beach in both evening and morning light.

At the far end, a swing hangs on thick ropes from the limbs of a pohutukawa tree. Kids voices carried down from the collection of summer homes above, and we wondered if they realize how lucky they are. What a place to grow up.

The drive to the top of the peninsula was possibly the most beautiful we’ve ever taken – and after 45,000 kilometers of driving down under, that is saying something. A hazardously narrow dirt road winds along a scalloped coast, lined with the graceful spreading branches of pohutukawas and nikau palms. Sheep farms, of course, hug the steep hills, and we must have pulled over to gawk a dozen times.

We spent a day and a half here, wandering the hillsides and watching a pod of dolphins offshore, and it was about at this time—two hours down at the end of a long dirt road—that our car decided it was just about done.

A loud, erratic crunching noise made us wince and pray that the axels would not pop off and send us careening over the edge on the whole trip out.  In the end, it was just one more adventure and another beautiful drive. Rolling into Auckland that night was a relief, having put 30,000 kilometers of New Zealand roads behind us.

We have just one more day in this country we’ve grown to love. A long spell of spectacular weather seem to be trying to lure us into forgetting past downpours. It is going to be sad to leave after so long, but home is calling.

One last walk

If you’ve been reading this blog for a few months or more, you’ve probably noticed a trend. We walk. A lot. Yes, it may be free, easy, and often one of the best ways to experience a new place. But by this time you must be wondering — aren’t we sick of hiking?

Well…no, not really. It’s safe to say that New Zealand is home to the most varied landscape on the planet. The topography, climate, and vegetation all change drastically as you travel up, down, or across these small pieces of land. Each trail has proved to be undeniably unique, beautiful, and full of surprises, and the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which will end up being the last long walk of our trip, was no different. Traversing 20 kilometers of the central North Island’s volcanic highlands, the Crossing navigates volcanic peaks, wide lava plains, and thermal hotspots.

But first, if you are going to have an enjoyable day completing the Alpine Crossing, you should temper your expectations. Piles of travel brochures proclaim it to be the best day hike in New Zealand — or even, ambitiously, the world. A bold statement, and one that lures tens of thousands of people a year to the trailhead. We’ve walked many beautiful trails in New Zealand and I’m sure the rest of the world has a lot to offer. Let’s just call it a nice walk and leave it at that.

So, we were expecting crowds, but were still quite shocked to see several hundred other people joining us at the trailhead on a cold, windy, cloudy morning. Hiking up in a steady stream of tourists with views partially blocked by the back of some stranger’s head, we got the strange feeling we were part of an Old West covered wagon train rather than experiencing a South Pacific wilderness. We neglected to photograph this portion of the trip for obvious reasons.

Grandiose titles and crowds aside, Tongariro National Park holds a captivating landscape. The trail winds through vast empty sweeps of land filled with chunks of black volcanic rock, pressure-warped pieces of brown and red pumice, and hardy gnarled shrubs. It’s beautiful in a stark and dramatic sort of way, and, once again, completely different from anything we’ve seen so far.

As we approached Mount Ngaurahoe—the brooding volcanic peak that served as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies—the clouds shrouding the summit evaporated. It looked like a long, boring climb, but we had to do it.

Surprise, surprise, it was a long, boring climb. Loose ash and pumice slid down the sides of the steep cone with every step, requiring nearly twice the effort, and a cold wind blasted us, numbing our fingers and noses. The crowds were left behind, though, and views opened up with each step upwards. By the time we reached to top we had forgotten about all the effort to get there.

Thin wisps of volcanic steam rose from the bottom of the ice-crusted caldera, mixing with the passing clouds. Broad sweeps of barren land spread out below us, dotted with emerald lakes and plumes of sulfuric steam from geothermal vents. Lake Taupo glittered in the distance and 130 kilometers to the southwest, the tip of Mount Taranaki poked out from above the clouds. It was utterly freezing at the top, with ice-cold winds threatening to blow us over the edge.


Mmmm… beer!

Thirsty travelers take note: New Zealand does brew excellent beer, and we now know where to find it!

Wellington is New Zealand’s capitol city, and has a reputation that precedes it. Everywhere we travel across this country, a mention of Wellington usually garners a comment on how great the city is or how crappy its weather can be. Unfortunately for us, it was the latter that came true, as wind-driven rain pounded down for all three days we spent in the city. This meant that most of our time was spent in free museums or looking forward to the next meal, snack, or drink, in a search that eventually led us to the mighty lineup of taps at The Malthouse.

Bare wood beams, a wall full of bottles from far and wide, and a beer list as thick as the Bible. Immediately, we felt at home.

After a few generous samples we secured respective pints of a Belgian white and an IPA from Blenhiem-based Moa, the Armageddon IPA from Epic, and a delightfully hoppy American IPA from Wellington’s own Tuatara.

We could have spent the night here, devouring pint after pint and curling up under the bar for a sound slumber if not for one thing: $10 beers have a nasty habit of adding up quite quickly. Thus, the evening saw us torn between far off looks of contentment and bitter shakes of the head, muttering things like, “it’s a damn shame.” After two apiece we ripped ourselves off the stools and shuffled home through the drizzle.

But despite the weather, we’re left with fond memories of New Zealand’s favorite city. We’ll just have to imagine the views of glittering steel and glass against a bright blue bay and autumn sunshine… because the only photos we have are from inside the bar.