I left Auckland on Monday and headed off on a three-hour drive to Tauranga, The Bay of Plenty. It shouldn't really take that long but as this was my first solo left-side drive I wanted to take it slow. So for the next three hours, I got the hang of driving while taking in the absolutely gorgeous scenery. But the more I saw, the angrier I got thinking about how deprived the rest of us are for not ever knowing such beauty exists. It was like the scene in "The Wizard of Oz" when Dorothy's house lands in Oz and everything is transformed from black and white to technicolor. I left cold gray dreary New York and I found the yellow brick road.
Another refreshing change is that you won't find a McDonald's along New Zealand's Highways. Just cute little roadside cafes with fresh homemade food made by mom and pop. I never would have thought chicken and apricots would be a tasty combination but put them together in some fresh bread and you've got one really delicious panini. Another thing you probably won't run into at a rest stop on one of America's highways is these cute little guys.
So here I am now in Mount Maunganui, or Mauao, which means "caught by the morning sun." I'm staying just a short block from the beach and lucked out once again and was loaned a surfboard by the nice guy who works in the office at my motor lodge. I was at the beach by 6:30 the next morning to watch the sun come up and get baptized by the New Zealand waters. Then I went for a short run on the beach and was at work by 9am. Not a bad way to start the day. I could definitely get used to this.
On Saturday I decided I wanted to hike up to the top of the Mauao. The Mauao is a dormant volcanic cone that is 232 meters high and has 250 sheep grazing its slopes. It was a fairly steep climb to the top that really gets your heart racing. I consider myself in pretty good shape but took a blow to the ego when I was struggling near the very top and a man of about 80 who looked like the Kiwi Jack LaLanne sprinted past me while yelling words of encouragement, "You can do it! It will be worth it!" I soothed myself with the excuse that I was carrying at least ten pounds of weight in my backpack and therefore I was being slowed down but then, not one but two young girls wearing casts on their legs up to their knees went by me.
My daily count of broken limbs averages somewhere between 3-5 per day. Kiwi kids are fearless. They don't go home to play video games after school. They head straight to the beach with their surfboards. Their parents meet them there after work and go surfing right along with them. I've seen children as young as 5 surfing and even a woman of about 75 riding a bodyboard. Then they will lay out a blanket and have their family dinner on the beach. The children here are free. They climb on the rocks and if they get hurt, so what? They put a cast on it and keep going straight up to the summit of a volcano. But Kiwi Jack Lalanne was correct. It was definitely worth it. The view from the top was breathtaking. It would be worth the effort even with a broken leg.
Naked toddler climbing the rocks
View of Moturiki and Motuotau Islands from the top of the Mauao
After the summit, I hiked along the base track and watched as the waves crashed on the volcanic rocks that line the shore. The beauty of this place is just astonishing to the point of being overwhelming. It seems a shame that I am here all by myself and can't share this with anyone else. If a tree falls in the woods and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?
Base track of the Mauao
Another option besides the base track of the Mauao, if you feel you're not up to going to the summit is to walk up Mount Drury which is just down the road. Its paths are not as steep and are much easier if you're just looking for a casual walk. The views from the top are also really pretty. You could also try the paths on Moturiki Island which you can access from the beach. Hike up its paths and you will get the ocean perspective of Mount Maunganui. You'll be looking back at the shore from its hills.
My hike among the elderly and wounded really worked up an appetite. Conveniently located across the street are many choices of cafes to eat in. Here's another travel tip: If you order an iced coffee in New Zealand don't expect it to be filtered coffee with ice. What you will get is a milkshake with coffee-flavored ice cream. That's right! It's now week two and I still haven't gotten the hang of the coffee thing. I thought I was getting the hang of the driving on the left side too but judging by the look of my car apparently not. oops!
The perfect thing to do after a morning hike up a dormant volcano is stroll on over to the Salt Water Hot Pools strategically located right at the base of the Mauao. There are many geothermal pools in the region but Mount Maunganui is the only place in New Zealand where you'll find hot saltwater pools. They have several pools of varying temperatures that you can choose from and it's a great way to loosen up the muscles after a long day of volcano climbing.
After that, I walked over to the beach to watch the rest of the lifeguard competition. Dozens of young kids were competing in a grueling competition where they run through the sand then kayak or board through the ocean waves dragging their equipment. These kids are unbelievably fit and I realized I have yet to see an overweight child here. If I was ever drowning, one of these ten-year-olds would no doubt be able to rescue me.
Every Sunday morning there is a Farmers Market. They have live music and lots of local produce and homemade treats. I did a little shopping and then decided if I was in one of the best surfing towns in New Zealand I should go visit their surfing museum. The museum is located downstairs in the Mount Surf Shop and has a vast collection of classic surfboards. The co-owner, surfer businessman Dusty Waddell has the best and biggest collection of surfboards in Australasia. The shop museum shows the different eras of New Zealand surfing.
Mount Surf Shop and Museum
The next stop was Omanawa falls. It was a bit hard to find since it was out in the middle of nowhere on yet another long and windy road. Since all of the roads here seem to be long and windy that made it even more difficult to locate. There's a tiny little sign posted at the start of the path but it was so small I drove right past it and had to make a u-turn. Even then I wasn't sure if I was in the right spot because there were no markings on the road or trail. I set out anyway and was finally greeted by my tour guide here in the picture below.
(Why do pigs keep following me wherever I go?) The falls were really pretty and just because this country seems to keep outdoing itself, there was a rainbow coming out of the water cascading into the Omanawa River. The experience was abruptly cut short by a mysterious locked steel door at the end of the path blocking entry down to the river (am I in a new episode of LOST?) That's as far as you can go and it was disappointing to go all that way and get so close to the falls and the beautiful rainbow and not be able to get near it. Maybe I should have clicked my hiking boots together and said, "there's no place like home" but I have two weeks left here and I'm not ready for this dream to be over yet.