Monday, March 14, 2011

New Zealand Continued

Week 4

While in New Zealand for almost a month now I've been undergoing a slow transformation from New Yorker to Kiwi. I've learned the metric system, I use Celsius instead of Fahrenheit and I drive on the left side of the road. I am shedding my dull gray American skin (literally because my skin got so sunburned it's peeling off in sheets) and coming out of my chrysalis (with lovely tanned brown skin) a bright and shiny Kiwi.

It's week 4 and the transformation is finally complete. Last weekend I had the 100% hardcore Kiwi experience. I spread my new Kiwi wings and set out on a 3 hour trip to the town of Turangi for a white water rafting trip with some co-workers. First I stopped off in Taupo to meet one of them and watch the New Zealand Iron Man Competition. The competitors not only had to endure a grueling Triathlon but it was also pouring down rain the entire day. The town was packed with people from all over the world coming to see the event. Despite the rain, it was still very exciting. New Zealand seems to be the perfect place for an all-day competition that pushes the limits of human strength and endurance.

 After that, we drove another hour to Turangi for White Water Rafting down the Tongariro River. Because of all the rain, the water was 30 meters high (note use of metric units instead of imperial units) instead of the usual 16 meters high (although a native Kiwi would spell it "meters" rather than "meters") and therefore twice as fast as normal. My Kiwi initiation day. The rain did not let up for the entire two hours of the rafting trip but it didn't really matter since we were soaking wet anyway. I was a little scared at first but once we got through the first set of rapids I was all right and loving it. It was non-stop excitement.

White Water Rafting
On the way home, we stopped back in Taupo again for dinner and the racers were still at it in the dark and pouring rain. There were a few miserable stragglers still trudging along to the finish line. As I was driving past them in my warm comfortable car I wished I could pick them up and give them a ride to the finish line but thought that would probably be a bad idea. Anyway, I had a three-hour drive back to Tauranga and had to get back on the road.

The country roads were pitch black and the rain was pouring down so hard I could barely see two meters in front of me (note my use of metric system again). And of course, they were the typical sharp and steep treacherous New Zealand roads I referred to in my last blog about driving through the Coromandel Peninsula. For the next three hours, I had the most terrifying driving experience of my life. My fingernail prints are permanently embedded in the steering wheel. The drive home made the white water rafting seem like a lazy rowboat ride down a quiet river. I call this passing the Kiwi drivers test.

Shipwreck at base of the Mauao
Sunday morning one of my coworkers drove up to keep me company in Mount Maunganui. Since I'd spent the past couple weeks there all by myself it was nice to have someone to do things with and not have to sit in a cafe drinking my flat white talking to myself. It was mandatory that I show him the main attraction and take him up to the top of Mount Maunganui. So we started with a warm-up on Moturiki Island and then hiked past the Kiwis with their broken limbs to the summit of the Mauao. Then we did the base track and I showed him where the remains of a shipwreck from 1950 were located. After that, we got some lunch and rented some surfboards to wind down the day with a fun surf session in the Blowhole.

Monday I left Mount Maunganui to go stay the night in Waihi. On the way, I had to work in Te Aroha and Paeroa. Te Aroha is another tiny town that you can walk through in under a minute. Paeroa's claim to fame is its really popular beverage, "L&P" which stands for Lemon and Paeroa. It's a delicious and refreshing drink, like lemonade with a kick, and can only be found in New Zealand. Paeroa is so proud of its beverage that they even have a statue of an L&P bottle at the entrance to the town. At the L&P cafe you can get all kinds of L&P souvenirs and even L&P ice cream.

L&P cafe
While in town, I visited the L&P cafe (of course) as well as the Paeroa & District Museum. It had photographs and collections of artifacts relating to Paeroa's history in addition to a very diverse assortment of collections ranging from seashells to this old beauty salon hair waving machine. It looks like some sort of torture device but this is what women used to make their hair wavy before the invention of the perm.

200-year-old Waka stern post

Hair Waving Machine

They've got exhibits relating to military, sports, fashion, crockery, and school to name a few but my favorite collection was the Maori artifacts because it's something I've never seen at any other museum I've visited and they are truly beautiful and intricate works of art that have deep meaning. With almost 800 objects on display, they have one of the largest collections of Maori artifacts in NZ and possibly the world.

Karangahake Gorge
Gold mining equipment
On my way to Waihi, I stopped off to hike Karangahake Gorge. It's the site of the original gold rush in 1875 and still has the remains of an old gold mining company and mine shafts all along its trails. The views were beautiful but the bridges were a little scary!! You have to walk across while they bounce and sway over the Ohinemuri River but it's worth the small heart attack.

Maximum load 10 persons!


After that, I drove to Waihi and checked out the gold mining quarry. At around 6 pm Waihi became a ghost town and I had to eat dinner at Subway because it was the only place still open.
Waihi Gold Mining Quarry

The next morning I drove back to Auckland where restaurants, shops, and bars never seem to close (especially O'Hagans which is right outside my bedroom window and plays music until 4am every day) and just in time to miss the Tsunami which reached the Bay of Plenty a few days after my departure. Thankfully, it was only a small Tsunami and my beloved Mount Maunganui was unharmed. I was scheduled to fly home yesterday but it looks like I'll be staying here for a bonus week. Now that I've had a chance to test out my new Kiwi wings I should be ready to fly home.

Friday, March 4, 2011

New Zealand-Tauranga & the Coromandel Peninsula


Week 3

On Monday I drove north up the coast to Whangamata located in the Coromandel Peninsula. After work, I went to check into my hotel but no one was there. There was a sign on the door telling me to let myself into my room. Where is everybody? Gone I later found out. I might as well go check out the town...which took up about five minutes. There was one main street with all of the shops and restaurants. If you were driving you could go through it in about a minute and miss the whole thing if you weren't paying attention.

Whangamata Harbor

Coromandel Forest
Next, I had to drive to Kopu which is on the west side of the peninsula. The only way to get there is to drive an hour through the Coromandel Forest Park which has some seriously steep roads with extremely sharp turns the entire way but also spectacular views. My only complaint is that there are few places to pull over and take it all in. There's not even any shoulder on the road so if you pull over, your car will go flying off a cliff! This forest, with the exception of the road that goes through it, is basically untouched.

Mercury Bay, Whitianga
Tuesday I had to work in Whitianga which is another hour or so up north in the Coromandel region. So I set out again and was off through the Coromandel Forest and Tairua Forest. Not a bad commute to work. After work, I explored Whitianga (another one-street town) and visited Mercury Bay and then set out to go back to Tauranga.

On the way back I just had to make a pit stop at Hot Water Beach. I've been to many beaches but never one like this. If you dig a hole in certain locations of the beach at a particular time of day, warm geothermal springs will bubble up from underneath the sand. You can dig a hole and sit in your very own hot tub.
Hot Water Beach
Tairua Forest
Driving up steep mountain hills really sucked the gas out of my car and while out in the middle of nowhere, my gas light came on and my car started making a threatening beeping noise with an exclamation mark flashing on my dashboard !!! This is not good. Next, the skies opened up and it started pouring. It was a treacherous drive with no gas in the pouring rain through the steep and sharp turns of the forest. I didn't think I would make it out of the forest but when I finally did, the car coasted to the nearest gas station and I took my first breath in probably ten minutes. I was almost back to Tauranga when I suddenly came to a line of cars. Traffic in the country? Once I inched a little further up the road I was informed by a police officer that the road to Tauranga was closed. This was the only road to Tauranga but it should be open again "in about three hours," he told me. Drivers just pulled their cars over and left them on the side of the road to wait. If this happened back in New York there would be a riot in the street. But the road was closed so there was nothing left to do but to turn around and find someplace to pass the time. I made a U-turn and drove back into the town of Katikati and saw a sign for the Katikati museum. Perfect!

Outside the closed Katikati Museum
So I went in and found out the museum was also closed. This is not my day. At least the cafe was open. Until they closed that too. But they let me sit on a bench outside until the road opened back up two hours later. Apparently, a tanker truck tipped over and the road had actually been closed since 6 am. It was now 5:30 pm. When I finally got back on the road the skies cleared and as I drove on the only road to Tauranga, a brilliant rainbow stretched across the sky.

Ok, New Zealand. I still love you.

Te Puna Quarry Park

Te Puna Quarry Park
Wednesday was a much better day. I went to Te Puna Quarry Park, a community project built in an old quarry. This was one of my favorite places I've visited here so far. It's part museum, part sculpture garden--with works by local and regional artists, part hiking trails (or "tramping" as they call it here), part botanic garden. They also threw some rock climbing in the mix as well.

Musical sculpture
 They didn't forget to add a musical element either. Visitors can play music on this sculpture made from found objects and the sound will echo through the park. This place was really fantastic. You can stick to the main track or venture off onto one of the little side trails. Wherever you choose to go you'll discover a sculpture. You could come dozens of times and still not see it all. It would be a different experience every time. They also have a butterfly garden as well as a sensory garden for the visually impaired. Admission is simply a donation and the park is open all the time. You just let yourself in and explore.

Kiwi Train

Kiwi 360
Thursday was a triumphant day when I found my first cafe that served filtered coffee. Victory!

 I was working in Te Puke (It's pronounced Te Pookey just in case you were wondering) so I had to go see Te Puke's main attraction, Kiwi 360. I took the guided tour of the kiwi orchard. We drove in the little kiwi train through the orchards which grow not just kiwi's but just about 70 other kinds of fruit as well. We got to walk under the vines and pick kiwi berries and eat them. Kiwi berries (or Arguta) are like tiny little hairless kiwi's that taste like a kiwi and grape mixed. They were sweet and delicious. An interesting fact I learned about growing Kiwi's is that only the female vines can grow the fruit. The male plants only need to work for about two weeks out of every year to pollinate the females. Typical. ha! At the end of the tour, we were allowed to get off the kiwi train and wander around the orchard on our own. The guide let us pick and eat the Nashi off the trees. Nashi is a type of Asian pear that grows very well in the New Zealand climate. They are shaped and look like yellow apples but taste more like pears. They taste so good I had to take a couple for the road...because you never know when the road might be closed and you could get hungry waiting for it to re-open!

Picking Kiwi Berries

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Mount Maunganui, Tauranga, New Zealand

Week 2
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.

Mount Maunganui

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
Omanawa Falls
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.