Archive for March, 2010

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Saturday, March 27th, 2010

20 March 2010, New Zealand

As with all of our trips, the contents of my backpack includes several books. I’m currently reading The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam, which tells the story of how the United States became involved in Vietnam. It’s an interesting book although I have found that I’m lacking, or have forgotten, much of the prerequisite knowledge of U.S. history. Normally Wikipedia would be my constant companion for a book like this, but reasonably priced internet access has been hard to find in New Zealand. This is actually my second book of the trip; I first attempted to read A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace but the seemingly aimless musings about tennis and wind in Illinois didn’t quite capture my attention. However, the title of the book is a perfect description of our experience with one of New Zealand’s most beautiful day hikes, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a 19 kilometer walk through the Tongariro National Park, on New Zealand’s north island. The hike passes two volcanoes including Mount Ngauruhoe, the perfectly conical Mount Doom from the Lord of the Rings movies. We woke to rain on the morning of our hike, which subsided during our drive to the trailhead. A dense fog unfortunately persisted and obscured the views for the first half of the supposedly beautiful scenery. Although disappointing the comparison to Wallace’s work actually stems from the hoards of fellow hikers as well as our experience near the summit of Ngauruhoe. The most beautiful day hike in all of New Zealand is also the most popular day hike in all of New Zealand, and much of the trip was spent stepping on the heels of other hikers.  As we approached the summit the winds gusted to 55 kilometers per hour, challenging our footing and cutting through our fleece and thin jackets. Incidentally we later learned that the locals don’t hesitate to attempt the hike until the winds reach about 75 kilometers per hour, and actually appreciate a stiff breeze at the top. Apparently the summit can get quite hot when the air is calm.

Conditions improved markedly after we passed the summit  and in hindsight my comparison to A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again may have been premature. The clouds parted to reveal spectacular views of the barren volcanic landscape and the sun on our backs actually made for a pleasant afternoon. We walked past emerald colored lakes, a bright red crater, and active steam vents. We descended through alpine brush and native forest, finishing the hike in a little over six hours.

The Lost World

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

19 March 2010, New Zealand

We woke up early Friday morning in anticipation of our first adventure activity in New Zealand…abseiling!  The area around Te Kuiti has hundreds of limestone caves, some of which are filled with glowworms.  Tour operators in the area have taken full advantage of the caves and their glowworm inhabitants by offering a variety of activities beneath the earth’s crust.  The options range from black water rafting to abseiling and rock climbing.  After researching the plethora of options, we signed up for the “Lost World” tour offered by Waitomo Adventures.  The highlight of the “Lost World” is a 300 foot abseil into a cave.  This seemed like the best choice given that it’s a bit more challenging than some of the others options.

We arrived at the tour office and were introduced to our guide for the morning and a man from Belgium who had also signed up for the abseiling adventure.  On our way to the cave, our guide mentioned that the Amazing Race reality show visited this area of New Zealand about seven years ago and the contestants  actually did the “Lost World” tour as part of a challenge.  Those of you who know me are probably not surprised to hear that this fun fact from our guide helped to convince me that we had definitely signed up for the best underground activity!

Once we reached the cave, our guide provided us with our gear for the morning; coveralls, a hard hat with a headlamp,  gum boots and a harness.  We walked a short distance and suddenly came upon a large sinkhole.  A metal platform had been built so we could peer into the large hole and down 300 feet to the bottom of the cave.  After a five minute lesson on how to abseil, we were directed to sit on a metal beam while the guide hooked us up to the ropes.  Each of us then slid off the beam and then the four of us descended simultaneously.  Controlling the speed at which we descended was as easy as pulling up on the rope to increase our speed or pulling down on it to stop.  Apparently the abseil lasted 30 minutes but the time seemed to fly by way too quickly.

After reaching the bottom of the cave, we disconnected ourselves from the ropes and began our hike through the cave.  Walking further into the darkness, we turned on our headlamps and squeezed through some tight spaces until we reached a spot where the guide directed us to get comfortable and turn off all our lights.  Out of the darkness, hundreds of lights appeared on the ceiling of the cave.  Glowworms!

After admiring the bright lights and learning all about what makes the insects (aka glowworms) glow, it was time to head out of the cave.  But how do you get out of a cave that you abseiled 300 feet into?  The experts at Waitomo Adventures had thought of everything.  They had conveniently built a ladder that took us about halfway up the cave.  Climbing this slippery metal ladder was almost more intimidating than the abseil and certainly more physically challenging.  We each took turns clipping into the safety ropes and making the ascent.  After reaching the top of the ladder, we were able to hike the rest of the way out of the cave and into the fresh air.  Although we only visited one of the 600 odd caves in the area and there were certainly plenty more opportunities for underground exploring, the open road was beckoning, so we headed back to our car and continued the long drive south.

The Open Road

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

18 March 2010, New Zealand

On Thursday morning, we loaded up the car and headed south out of Auckland towards Raglan, a coastal town popular with surfers.  The town of Raglan itself is quite small and, at first glance, we didn’t see a whole lot that would hold our interest.  However, after following the signs toward the beach, we realized that the real action in Raglan is in the ocean.  Jason was practically foaming at the mouth when we came around a bend in the road and saw dozens of surfers resting on their boards.  Although he doesn’t actually know how to surf, it is one of the many things he hopes to try during the course of this trip.  We parked the car and found a comfortable spot with a good view of the water and settled in for our free lunch entertainment.  We weren’t the only ones who had come for the “show.”  Plenty of other people were lined up along the beach, sandwiches in hand, eyes transfixed on the waves.

After a couple of hours, I managed to pull Jason away from the beach and we continued our drive along New Zealand’s windy back roads.  Along the way, we stopped at Bridal Veil Falls.  This was the first of many random stops we would make as we journeyed south.  It was a quick 10 minute walk from the road to the waterfall and the view was well worth the detour.  As the afternoon wore on, we checked out the guide book and, after reading about the numerous small towns within our vicinity, we decided to look for a place to stay in Te Kuiti, the sheep shearing capital of the world!  Unfortunately, we were three weeks early for the annual town festival which includes the Running of the Sheep.  Think Pamplona minus the risk of injury from being gored by a bull.  We ended up finding a place to stay on a local farm with great views of the surrounding countryside and settled in for a quiet evening.