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February 15, 2001

New Zealand and Parts South

To New Zealand I must return, especially with enough time to properly explore the South Island. After merely a month in this wonderful country, I have barely scratched the surface. Nevertheless, after my Northland meanderings I did manage to take a quick look at the volcanic region of the North Island and get a back country trek in on the South Island; along the way I caught some fish, drummed under the full moon, and discovered a Busker's haven.

While waiting for the bus to Rotorua in Auckland, I visited an interesting aquarium called Kelly Tarlton's Underwater World. On they edge of the bay they had converted some huge underground tidal storage tanks into aquariums. Each section of the aquarium has underwater plexiglass tunnels that visitors walk through, right within the fish. There was a particularly impressive shark tank that had sharks over ten feet long, and similar sized rays, cruising all around and overhead. In addition, they had a chilled environment with a penguin breeding area and an informative Antarctica exhibit. The next day, I was on the bus to Rotorua.

Rotorua, in the North Island, is a popular tourist destination centered around a hotbed of geothermal activity featuring boiling mud pits, geysers, volcanoes, and scents of sulphur drifting on the breeze. In this respect, it reminded me of a more urbanized version of Yellowstone. Locals sometimes refer to it as "Roto-Vegas" due to the industry response to the regular influx of tourists such as myself.

Earlier in my trip I had read a headline about a rogue geyser erupting in a town to the south. This geyser turned out to be one of the small geysers in the middle of a city park in the middle of Rotorua. As I rolled into town, noticing the ever-present smell of sulphur in the air, I saw the effects of the eruption. In the process of blowing scalding mud and steam high into the air, it had withered and killed all of the trees and vegetation within about 150 feet surrounding the geyser. Most of the pathways in the park come much closer than this to the geologic curiosity, but at the time of the eruption nobody was nearby. Most people would assume that this sort of event would be a cause for concern for locals that live on top of such hotbeds -- not so in Rotorua. The locals were excited and proud of the local charms their village had to offer. I never found out whether they were going to leave the white, withered husks of the trees and bushes in the park for posterity, or if they were going to plant new ones.

To put the event in proper perspective, it really was pretty small. Most of the region has volcanic features, and there are many lakes that are actual craters or the result of subsidence following a major eruption. The nearby adrenaline capital of Taupo sits on the shore of the largest lake in NZ, the entirety of which is a single volcanic crater from an eruption that was rumoured to have darkened the skies of China a few thousand years ago.

I was only staying for a short while in Rotorua, since I wanted to get to the South Island fairly quickly. The next day I rented a mountain bike from a local ice cream shop (don't ask) and took myself on a tour of the place. All throughout New Zealand there are huge forests managed by Fletcher Challenge, in cooperation with the forest service. One of these forests is near Rotorua, and has a wide variety of trees normally found in the U.S., including California redwoods. Fletcher maintains mountain bike trails in this forest, and they are world class. I had a wonderful time pounding on the trails, even though it served as a stark reminder that I was considerably out of biking shape. Hitting a nice mountain bike trail, for those of you who partake in such things, is a great way to feel right at home while travelling. Best of all, these trails were dedicated to mountain bikes; I even saw signs indicating "no horses"...not that I have anything personal against equestrians, but it is ironic since the tables are typically turned.

After riding the trails, I took to the highways and rode out to one of the regional geothermal attractions, Hell's Gate. It's a fascinating area full of bubbling and boiling mud pits, sulphur ponds, and steam vents. Many of the seething ponds were dark grey in color due to high concentrations of graphite in solution; for this reason they were actually hotter than the boiling point of water, typically 107 to 109 degrees Celcius (224 to 228 F). There is a local Maori legend about a woman who was driven to suicide by an abusive and neglectful husband. She chose to leap into one of these pools to end her suffering. Many of the towns and features of the area bear words used in her mother's lament upon discovering her daughter's fate (the lament itself was something along the lines of "Here my daughters broken remains will lie forever"). Gazing into these pools, I felt like it was an odd way to choose to end one's suffering, sort of like ending the pain of a hammer strike to the thumb with a boulder strike to the chest.

So after that fine day of bike riding, I hopped back on the bus and continued to Wellington on the south end of the North Island. I missed an incredible amount of sights along the way, but time waits for no traveller. Wellington is a beautiful city, nestled on the hills surrounding the bay. It reminded me a bit of San Francisco. I did the urban thing while waiting for the ferry to the South Island; caught a neauvo Celtic band, wandered in the lush botanical gardens, caught a movie ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", which was great), and went on a scenic hike up Mt. Victoria for sweeping views of the surrounding city.

The ferry ride to the South Island goes from Wellington to Picton, a small port and fishing village which only gets active whenever a ferry unloads. The ride is very scenic since it travels through much of the Marlborough Sounds on the way. Costal tracks and sea kayaking seem to be the most popular activities in this region, especially further west in and around Abel Tasman National Park. Unfortunately, none of the sea kayaking outfits will do solo rentals due to insurance concerns. None of the other scheduled trips fit in with my schedule, and I did not want to fool with buying a used kayak and selling it later. The sounds in the region are wonderful for kayaking, however, with all sorts of inlets and beaches to explore. Many of the hostels and getaways are only accessible by boat, and water taxis abound. Since it did not seem like I was going kayaking, I did the next best thing and went fishing instead. I got a spot on one of the local charters, and spent the day catching blue cod, red sea perch, and the pesky dog fish -- a small shark that tends to eat anything on a hook. That night I ate well, cooking up a portion of the days catch at the hostel.

The hostel where I stayed in Picton warrants special mentioning. It's called The Juggler's Rest, and is run by professional jugglers. I stayed there for two nights and loved it. Buskers come and go constantly, and each night is like a mini-carnival in the courtyard, with people practicing juggling, fire-breathing, and diablo hurling. I immediately picked up several new tricks with my juggling skills, and for the first time got to try my hands on some juggling pins. It was such a friendly, odd and quirky atmosphere; I felt right at home. Down the street I found a family that makes juggling balls, and bought five for my travels. Perhaps when I am through I will be able to handle all five.

So after Piction I caught a ride to Nelson, the regional gateway for all things outdoors on the northwest coast of the South Island (including Abel Tasman, etc). Here I began gathering supplies for a back country trek up in the Nelson Lakes region, a region that offers some alpine segments in the mountains (other treks in the region are typically coastal in nature). While doing so, I caught word from one of the guys managing the hostel that there was a full-moon drumming and fire dancing event up on the beach the next night. I lingered for an extra day, finishing my preparations (and due to a boat under repair, missed out on another activity in which I wanted to partake: shark diving, where they lower you down in a shark cage in the middle of a bunch of sharks in a feeding frenzy -- ah well, next time).

The night of the full moon, about eight of us borrowed bikes from the hostel and rode down to the beach for the drumming. It was a beautiful night, and I got to sit in with a drum for a while. The drummers were not particularly skilled, but there were some competent fire dancers about. All together, it added up to a great evening, especially since I had not had a chance to drum in a long while. Afterwards I went with several of the guys into town for some mischief in the local taverns. Our crowd included a crazy Kiwi, two musically competent Germans, a Japanese truck driver, and myself. A fun night overall, even though I had to get up early the next day to catch a ride to St. Arnaud.

St. Arnaud is a tiny town near the trailheads of tramps around Lakes Rotoiti and Rotoroa. These lakes were formed by glaciers that gouged out the valleys and subsequently retreated. After storing some gear at the local hostel, I headed off onto the trails for five days. The hike was very beautiful, and included both wooded and alpine regions. The woods in the region tend to be birch forests, with over eight species of birch represented. An interesting thing about these forests is that they support a black fungus that grows on many of the trees in lower elevations. This fungus does not kill the trees, and it produces a honeydew that birds used to feed on. I say used to, because in this region now there are wasps (which look like yellowjackets to me) that feast on the honeydew. They infiltrated New Zealand in a shipment of engine parts, and have displaced local bird life in some regions. There are no predators to feed on the wasps, so in woods that have them, they are everywhere and the forest hums with their presence. Anyway, the black fungus produces this honeydew, and as a result, when you walk through the woods you keep catching strong wafts of what really smells like mead (honey wine, to you non homebrewers out there). Mmmmm!

In the higher elevations, up in the alpine regions, there were spectacular views of mountains and valleys, and plenty of rugged hiking across ridges and scree fields. Some of the ascents and descents were absolutely brutal, going straight up and down sans switchbacks. One ascent in particular, from Sabine hut to Angelus hut, rose over 900 meters within 4 km. (This works out to about 3000 feet over 2.5 miles). Grunt work indeed, but well worth the reward of sweeping vistas.

Though they were not much of a problem in the higher elevations, down by the lakes there were tons of sandflies. These little bastards are relentless, and though they do not hurt when they bite, the bites themselves itch like hell. I compare the itch to the type of itch you might get from poison ivy. It only gets worse when you scratch it. In the lower elevations, at least, I was grateful for the well developed hut system on the track since they provide some roomy protection from sandflies during the day (sandflies retire at night). The huts provide basic shelter and cisterns of rainwater; unless you are seeking solitude, there are many interesting characters to meet in them as well.

So after five days I emerged back into St. Arnaud. (On the last day I hiked out with an Irish guy that also spends part of the summer as a raft guide on the Arkansas River in Colorado -- small world, huh?). That night in the hostel I met up with an English fellow named John whom I had run across in one of the huts on the tramp. John works part time as a hut warden on many of the tracks in NZ, although he was off duty when I met him. We went to the only restaurant in town and treated ourselves to a steak dinner; after five days in the bush, it was fantastic. I suspect it was pretty good even without that advantage.

The next day I rode with John to Christchurch. I had a plane to catch on the 15th, and even though I had royally missed most of the South Island I decided to stick to my schedule and come back to the South Island another day. John has a guide friend who had told him about some unmarked hot springs along the way. In NZ, hot springs are fairly common, but usually have commercial "thermal resorts" associated with them. These hot springs were right on the bank of the Boyle River, along an unmarked trail that the locals tend to keep to themselves. They were very nice to my sore muscles, and the refreshing splash in the cold river afterwards was fantastic.

Once we were in Christchurch, John took me to meet this tramping guide friend of his. As it turns out, all over NZ you see pamphlets for guided tramping tours. John's friend Malcom turned out to be one of the owners and operators of this company. Not surprisingly, he was very knowledgeable about the various tracks in NZ. Malcom lived in a small town just outside of Christchurch called Lytlleton. It's a hilly port town, and very pretty. I mention it because it was the town that the outdoor scenes for the movie "The Frighteners" was filmed, and once it was pointed out to me it was immediately recognizable.

That night Christchurch was having a huge outdoor Valentines dance, and we all showed up for the live samba music. The dance was in a pretty part of downtown Christchurch, with a creek winding through it. The park was decked out with Valentine decorations, the people of the city were actually dancing (how refreshing), and gondolas cruised the waterway. All in all, it was entirely too romantic for John and myself, who didn't have dates. So we eventually wandered off to some of the nearby pubs and wrapped up the evening in a pub called The Bog.

The next day I reluctantly caught my flight to Brisbane, Australia. There was so much of New Zealand that I missed, but I have a feeling I could spend an entire year just in NZ and still have that feeling. I will definitely have to come back to NZ and explore it properly, with more time.

I got but a taste, and NZ is finger licking good.

Excerpt from the Beer Lover's Almanac: There is hope yet. The South Island in New Zealand has done much to redeem my earlier estimation of the NZ beer scene. There are many more regional and micro breweries in the south. In particular, Mac's brewery puts out some good product (such as the Black Mac dark malt). In Nelson I found a tiny boutique brewery that was little more than an overgrown homebrewing operation that only sold its beer from the shop. I talked with the owner and brewer for a while about the art and state of brewing in NZ. Micros are on the upswing, as is homebrewing. His beer was tasty, and I took a few of the browns and stouts along to the full moon drumming session. Nelson is the region where most NZ hops are grown, and I have yet to figure out the characteristics of all the local varieties. In general, though, Kiwis prefer their beers on the maltier side rather than the hoppy side.


Random hah: A local man was recently arrested for performing a haka, or Maori war dance, on an unsuspecting Asian tourist who lit up a cigarette nearby. The war dance involves a lot of leaps and facial contortions, and serves as thoroughly intimidating way of unnerving one's enemies. The All Blacks, the NZ rugby team, have made it a tradition to perform the haka before each game. It is actually illegal to perform the haka on unsuspecting tourists in NZ. It is unknown whether the tourist realized the outburst was due to the cigarette.


Till next time from somewhere in Oz,
Matt