New Zealand and the Northland
I have just returned from the Northland of New Zealand, after having successfully arrived in Auckland on the morning of January 20. I spent a couple of days in Auckland getting my bearings and running errands, after which I set off on a loop through what the Kiwis call the Northland, the northernmost bit of the island above Auckland. Land of beach, kauri trees, sheep, and dairies -- I was on my way.
The first thing I noticed upon arriving in Auckland was that the five hour time difference threw me into a normal schedule -- that is, waking up at six or seven in the morning and considering going to sleep around eleven or midnight. In this regard my normal nocturnal habits served me well. While in Auckland I stayed in a couple of areas. The first was right in the middle of downtown where there are about a dozen backpackers (this is what the Kiwis call hostels) in close proximity. New Zealand, it turns out, has a highly developed backpacking community and much of the economy is geared towards the traveler. There is lots going on in downtown Auckland, and people from all over the world and all walks of life abound. It seems that the vast preoccupation of the city is sailing, and the bays are crammed full of sailboats. The next couple of nights I spent in a pretty hip area of town called Parnell, up on a hill near one of the largest parks in town (or domains, as they call them here). After running a few errands in the city, I was off for the beaches up north.
Since the economy is geared towards backpackers here, there are lots of buses and shuttles that cater towards people that aren't interested in traveling the straight line between A and B, but rather a meandering route where you can hop on an off whenever you want. These are pretty affordable (though not as cheap as hitching), and if you can stand being on a pseudo-touristy bus for a while are a pretty good way to get around. So it was one of these type of buses that I chose for my basic transportation along a broad loop through the Northland.
There are many gorgeous beaches in New Zealand, and they are not very crowded at all. One of the more popular destinations on the east coast is up in the Bay of Islands, where many people choose the city of Paihia as a base of operations for exploring the area. While in Paihia I took a long hike one day up through the native bush along a ridge overlooking the bay. The flora in New Zealand is truly unique, with a large number of the species existing nowhere else in the world. The going theory is that New Zealand split very early off of the supercontinent Gondwanaland very early in the process of the breakup that eventually formed the continents we know today. As a result, many species evolved on their own, isolated from the rest of the world for millions of years -- so not only are there species that exist nowhere else, there are also varieties that have remained virtually unchanged since the days of the dinosaurs. New Zealand did not have many dinosaurs, except for a smallish dog-sized variety, so to this day there are prehistoric plants that have been found as fossils on other continents -- the same plants that the dinos munched on.
So the hike was lush and beautiful. One thing that I was surprised to find was a preponderance of cicadas down here. They certainly make a different noise than I am accustomed to, but they are everywhere. The forests are teeming with insect and bird life around here. I came out of the bush in a little town called Opua, where the ferry runs across to Russell Island. If you have studied any NZ history, this island is where much of the lawlessness and piracy happened during British colonization. From there I took a nice coastal walk back to Paihia; this was a track cut out of the bank up the hill that offered great views of the bay. All together it took most of the day to complete.
The next day signed up to sail on a yacht to explore the islands in the bay, of which there are seven main islands and over a hundred smaller ones. The bay is spectacular, and its reputation is well earned. I got to steer the yacht for a while under full sail, so I was allowed a brief fantasy of owning my own boat and calling the ocean my own. One of the highlights of the trip was stomping around on Roberton Island, the very place Captain Cook first touched down in NZ (and was promptly greeted by a bunch of agitated Maori). In general, the Maori influence is very strong in the north island of NZ, and they are still a very active part of everyday life in NZ.
After Paihia I was off to Opononi. This is a tiny little town on the south side of Hokianga Bay. Nestled on the west coast, this is a very laid back, underdeveloped and quiet paradise. After the hustle of Paihia it was a welcome rest. Opononi's claim to fame was the appearance of "Opo" the friendly dolphin back in the mid-fifties. Opo was quite popular, and was truly friendly -- he would swim up to bathers and let them pet him and play games with him. Opo was popular, and eventually thousands of people were traveling to Opononi to see the friendly dolphin. Unfortunately, Opo died soon thereafter. Most of the locals believe that it was the activities of illegal dynamite fishermen that killed the dolphin. Some people darkly whisper that it might not have been an accident, because apparently there were some elements in the town that resented the sudden popularity of their quiet little paradise. Opo is buried in front of the war memorial in town, and is still revered to this day.
I took a day walk up to the South Head, the southern point at the mouth of the bay where it opens into the Tasman Sea. In many ways this area reminded me of the northern coast of California, except the rocks that the waves crash against are volcanic in nature. The North Head is made of huge sand dunes, another major difference. I worked my way down to the beach and lingered for a long time, as I never seem to tire of the sound of crashing waves. The confluence at the mouth of the bay was very turbulent and serves as a nice reminder of what water in motion can do. This is not somewhere I would ever want to swim.
The next day, I went across the bay with a Danish couple from my hostel to partake in one of the regional activities: dune surfing. Dune surfing is common all throughout the extreme northern regions, but this bit of dune was special. Unlike most dunes, this one ended directly in the water of the bay. So after flying down about 150 feet of sand on a modified boogie board, you shoot out about thirty yards across the water of the bay. Great fun. Before commencing the dune surfing, my Danish acquaintance Martin and I hiked up behind the larger dunes to find some wonderful wind worn sandstone formations that lead into a deeper costal canyon. The sandstone was soft, and was clearly the result of sand dunes in the process of petrification. In many ways it reminded me of what the slickrock hills around Moab, Utah, must have looked like at some point in their history. That night, the Swiss fellow who owns the hostel in Opononi made a wonderful fondue along with some homemade dipping bread. I'd never really had fondue before, but I have no trouble imagining that this was pretty tasty as far as fondue goes.
At this point I was beginning to notice the effects of the NZ sun. I had been using sunscreen on my walks and water activities, but nevertheless the sun was working its way through. The ozone layer is thinner down here, so make no mistake about it: The NZ sun will bite you.
My bus was not running the next day, so I hopped aboard a smaller van that my Danish friends were taking. The van was driven by a local man, and on the way to Dargaville we stopped in some of the kauri forests along the way. The kauri trees grow to enormous sizes, and some are more than 2000 years old. The Europeans absolutely decimated the kauri forests when they arrived, and there are very few stands left. There are numerous restoration efforts underway, but the trees grow slowly -- the results will not appear until long after our generation is gone. The bits of kauri forest that remain are fantastic, and are treasure troves of native NZ flora.
Many of the beaches in the area are driveable as well, so on the last bit to Dargaville we drove along the Rapiro Ocean Beach (100 km long or so) to Baylys Beach. Along the way the driver stopped and showed us some interesting layers in the sandstone of the banks along the shore. There are at least three distinct layers that represent fallen kaori forests well on their way to becoming coal deposits. Each black layer represented a kauri forest that was leveled by a volcanic eruption. The lowestlayer was over fifty million years old, and you could still see bits of root, bark, and kauri gum in the deposits.
So I arrived in Dargaville. Though far larger than Opononi, Dargaville is very much a small town with an economy based on the surrounding farms. It is next to a large silty river that reminds me of a smaller version of the Mississippi. This river is driven by the tides twice a day, back and forth, so never gets much chance to discharge silt into the ocean. The tides are significant, as I noticed when poking around near the shoreline -- drops of about 8 feet or so seem common. The few boats in the town endure this stoically, settling gently down into the mud each time the tide recedes. As I was studying these boats I noticed a plain looking building with a couple of gents having beers on the back porch. I could see tables in the building, but it was otherwise empty. I found my way up to the deck overlooking the river and introduced myself. The building is a clubhouse for one of the local boating clubs. It seems like everyone is into sailing in NZ, and Dargaville is no exception. They just completed their own regatta that very day in celebration of the Auckland anniversary. They were great guys; there was Wayne who managed the club bar; Nod, who managed a local dairy farm; Allen, who runs a local jet boat operation; and Jimmie, an interesting fellow and deaf handyman. We got along great. After a couple of beers I had entered into an arrangement with Nod to go check out the dairy farm in the morning.
The next morning I show up at Nod's place a bit before 7 a.m. Nod lives in a place with a great view above a tire shop near the boat club. They start milking on the farm (about 400 cows) around 4 a.m., but normally don't finish until around 7:30. Nod and I hop into his car to head to the farm, along with his little Yorkshire terrier who travels to the farm with him every day. Unfortunately, they had finished milking early that day and were in the process of cleaning up. "Darn," I'm thinking, I really wanted to see those cows getting milked so I could get a bit of that farm experience. No worries -- Nod explained all the equipment to me, and the process really is interesting. It was about this time that I looked down to find myself ankle deep in cow shit. "Ahhhhhhh!" I said, after a deeply vigorous inhalation, "Now we're Serious." Nod and I got on the four wheeler and moved one of the herds to another pasture. After this we checked out the rest of the farm and I helped taken in a section of temporary fence they use to partition the grazing areas. I was happy because I was getting to see the farm and drive the four wheeler around. I think Nod was a bit embarrassed that we had missed the milking, but I had a fantastic time.
It bears mentioning that my Danish friends thought I was daft. They both have worked on dairy farms, and the notion that someone might want to go visit one for fun seemed odd to them. I'm sure they got a good laugh about it, especially after they took a look at me when I returned.
Later on that day I visited the maritime museum in Dargaville, which has a very impressive display of various shipwrecks they have pulled off of the Rapiro Ocean Beach (the same beach I drove down earlier). One of the more impressive items is a pre-European Maori war canoe, which they used to carve out of a single kaori tree. It is the only example of a pre-European canoe of its kind known to exist. Another interesting artifact in front of the museum is the main masts from the Rainbow Warrior, the Greenpeace ship that was sunk in the Auckland harbor by French operatives in 1985.
On the walk back from the museum, I heard my name called. I looked up into a building to see Wayne, from the night before, waving his eyebrows suggestively whilst panamiming the universal sign for cow milking with both hands. I had to regretfully inform him that we missed the milking, but had a great time on the farm nevertheless.
So I caught my regular bus out of Dargaville and sit in Auckland once again. It is overwhelmingly evident that I have not granted myself enough time to properly explore this country. I'm set to pay a brief visit to Rotorua tomorrow to pay homage to the volcanoes, after which I'm off to Wellington and the south island. There I hope to get at least a couple of back country treks under my belt, and finally do some sea kayaking.
Excerpt from the Beer Lovers Almanac: New Zealand seems to be dominated by two major breweries. Microbreweries exist here and there, but they are not often found in the local taverns for some reason. Speights puts out some decent malty ales, and Red Lion does a decent pilsner, but so far my favorite has been Monteiths Original ("Highly Hopped", European style).
Random Hah: I saw a pumping truck that looked like it was designed to service portable toilets, and proudly displayed on the license plate was "SHTMEN".
That's all for now, so fare well until I wrap up the south island.