Monday, June 16, 2008

Adventures in Rotorua

Rotorua is famous not just for all of the adventure possibilities but for the fact that it is situated in an area of large Geothermal activity. Some of the adventure stuff is based on this Geothermal activity and one of those places is Hell’s Gate. Hell’s Gate has pathways through an area that is filled with steam vents that are spewing sulphur-filled steam and mud pools that bubble at high temperatures. There is also a waterfall that is 35C. At the end of the 2 km walk, you can rest with your feet in a hot mud bath. Michelle and Cathy and I do this while Dave and Paul and Anna get a carving lesson from the Maori guide Ben. John orders a carving to add to his collection.

From Hell’s Gate we head all the way around to the other side of the lake to play a round of minigolf. The highlight of the golf was the little dog that the manager had named Holly. It was a mix between a poodle and some breed we’d never heard of. They had piped in bird calls and it took us a while to figure out the birds weren’t there.

The next day we played some tennis at Ken and Shirley’s, do 5 loads of laundry and then headed out to go zorbing. Zorbing is a uniquely Kiwi activity. They drive you to the top of a hill and put you in a huge plastic ball with warm water in it and push you down the hill. The boys said it felt like a really long waterslide.

From zorbing, we head to the skydiving place so that those who did not skydive in Queenstown in the South could try it here. Anna is totally game to go, as is John. Cathy is unsure but when I agree to go, she changes her mind. Anna and John go from 12,000 feet and we tell Cathy we will go from 9,000 (but really we tell the pilot to go to 12,000 – I mean really, once you’re jumping out of a plane, what is an extra 3,000 feet?!) John and I did a static line jump from 4,000 feet in 1991 before they closed Beiseker down for safety reasons!! I didn’t really think I’d be skydiving ever again, but what we don’t do for our kids?!

Anna and John appear as tiny dots in the clear blue sky and after about a minute they are more recognizable. They come in right over us and land in the field in front of us. Anna wants to go again right away and John has had a rather hard landing and would rather wait a few days!

Cathy and I climb into the plane and sit on the floor with our jumpleaders. The plane is really just a hollow that we can only sit in with a sliding window that doesn’t get closed right away. Once we are taxiing down the runway, Cathy’s jumpleader closes the door. The view is quite amazing from the plane with all of the sheep appearing as little white specks. There are numerous lakes and the view is unreal with the bright blue lakes and green hills.

It is finally time for us to jump and Cathy goes first. She disappears and very quickly I am up. I jump on command and the wind hits me very hard. My ears won’t pop and I feel every bit of liquid escaping my face and I realize why my instructor right behind me (we are attached by harness to them) is wearing goggles! I remember Cathy’s instructor telling her to remember to breathe and if she forgot then to scream. I don’t need to scream but I do have to remember to breathe. It is actually quite cold at that height and I can hardly wait for the freefall to end. After what seems like forever, he pulls the chute and we slow right down and drift slowly over the landscape. Things are now quite enjoyable and I relax and take in the view. It takes us a few minutes to drift down to the airport and then we can see everyone and he tells me to lift my legs up to my chest and we drift in for a very gentle landing on our butts. Unlike Cathy who is ecstatic and not at all mad about the extra 3,000 feet, I am sure I will never be doing this again!

The next day we head out to go whitewater rafting. We are picked up by another dreadlocked adventure dude named Nigel. They bus us back to Hell’s Gate and get us all kitted up in wetsuits and booties, fleece shirts, spray shirts and lifejackets and helmets. You are supposed to be 13, but we assure them Paul will be right in there no problem. This is the place that our Kiwi friend in Wellington told us to go to as they take you over a 7 meter waterfall. We head out on the river and he talks to us about paddling together. This is what we will be doing this summer when we canoe the Bowron Lakes Circuit so it is a good little start.

Our first corner takes us immediately onto rapids that are bigger than anything we have ever seen. We then do a 2 meter waterfall and then more rapids. We are in a dark narrow highbanked river gully covered in rainforest. It is quite a sacred place to the Maori as there are eels in the river that they ate. They also used to bury their dead in the splits in the rock and we say Maori prayers several times along the river. Next up is the big 7 meter drop and he teaches us how to drop down into the boat and tuck our chins so we don’t smack our heads on the helmets of the people in front of us. We have to paddle hard to get us into the waterfall and then we drop down into the boat and it throws us sideways and fills with water. This is the moment of truth as if we are going to flip it will be now. I hold my breath and we pop out at the bottom right side up!! I guess these things do tip about 1 in 4 times so it’s great to be still in the boat.

We then proceed down the river and there is a thermal spring that heats the river. Dave and I jump in and take the next waterfall holding onto the side of the boat. The water is really warm. We then do some surfing where he drives us right into the waterfall and then the front ends goes under and soaks the people in the front We all take turns and then we round the last bend and get out. The next bend after that would have been over a 9 meter waterfall that has killed many people!

Our adventures over, we head back to the cabin at the Top Ten to do a couple of days of homework.

The Road to Rotorua

Dave is up early and tackling Science at 7:30 AM. He can see the light as he is making great progress in Physics. John is tutoring him and is able to incorporate everyday things that we are doing and seeing into the lessons.

We head into Napier to see the artdeco buildings. The entire town was destroyed in 1931 by a 7.9 earthquake and when they rebuilt the town, they had some fun making sure all of the buildings are painted in great colors and shaped in different ways. This is a great tourist attraction. We stop at a toy store and buy a Frisbee and Boggle. We have great fun in Gabriola with Boggle and it, along with Scrabble will keep our minds happening on the boat. We also hit a great bakery and buy desserts for tonight as we will be having dinner with Ken and Shirley and Michelle at their condo in Rotorua. We also find a second hand bookstore and the girls buy The Queen’s Fool by Phillipa Gregory and I buy Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett (he has just written the sequel but I can’t remember the story). One more U-Turn as we have to get gas and it’s on the other side of the highway ad it’s off to Rotorua.

We follow another winding road and end up at lake Taupo. It looks like the Shuswap but is even bigger. There is quite the breeze coming off the lake, so we don’t stop for long. We hit Rotorua at rush hour and it feels like Kelowna. Rotorua is the adventure capital of the North Island like Queenstown was in the South. Ken and Shirley are on the North end of the lake and we enter from the south. Another 30 minutes of winding and very narrow roads has us looking at Shirley who is flagging us down on the road.

Our total reward is a great roast lamb and chicken dinner complete with mint sauce and every vegetable under the sun here in NZ. They have a 3 bedroom place and John and I get to sleep with a roof over our heads as he has a 3AM conference call with the boys at Tango. He has had several of these over the course of the trip and this one should be easier than the one at the base of the Himilayas!

Napier and Hastings

In the morning we ask a Kiwi couple we have met, where they would recommend going. They say Napier so we head off to this famous art-deco town via wine and orchard country. We hope to get to the Gunn Estate winery near Hawke Bay at Hastings, so we head to the information place in Hastings. All over NZ they have signs posted with a single small i that you can access 7 days a week. They have every pamphlet imaginable for both islands and also serve as a travel agent for booking tours as well as ferries and accommodations. Unfortunately for us, the Gunn Estate is closed for the season, though. The gal does give us some information on places to go including a cheese place and a honey place.

We are surrounded by beautiful orchards as we find our way to the honey place. The apples are just being harvested and there is one called Pacific Rose which is the best tasting apple we’ve ever had. They are twice the size of any apple at home, red on the outside and white on the inside. They are hard and crunchy like a granny smith, but sweet and juicy like a Fuji. We buy them by the huge bagful for the rest of our time here in NZ. We also pass by little fruit and veg stands like you see in the Okanagan and can buy organic cauliflower, avocado, carrots, broccoli and potatoes, as well as pears and apples. At one such stand we cross the street to watch the sheep as they eat the detritus under the vines of the grapes. We do see this everywhere now, where the grapes are done, and the sheep are on cleanup duty.

We find the Araki Honey place and it proves to be a great science lesson. There are all kinds of interactive activities and microscopes as well as a live bee hive pressed between 2 panes of glass. They have tagged the Queen who is triple the size of the other bees. There is also a tasting station, where you can taste any one of about 10 different varieties of honey. The taste differs according to the flower that was used to get the nectar from. Some, like clover, are very mild, while others, like Tamarind, are much stronger. The average harvest from a NZ hive is 30 Kg of honey and for each kg the bees fly the equivalent of 3 orbits around the Earth. Each bee may make one teaspoon of honey in its lifetime. The most bee stings survived in one session was over 2200!!

We head off to the cheese place and see the process in action. There are hundreds of wheels of brie ripening in one room. We try all the different kinds, and the kids are even brave enough to try a mild blue – a couple of them don’t even spit it out! We also encounter feijoas for the first time. These are a small green fruit about the size of a small pair. Inside they have seeds like a guava which you eat and they are quite tart and slimy. They make feijoa jam and smoothies, but we pass. We stock up on some of the different cheeses as the kids now have much better palates for more obscure foods from all of the exposure from the traveling.

We leave Hastings and go up the highway winding through lots of grape country to the town of Napier. Yes, once again it is raining and we can’t find the campground. Luckily, we have put a SIM card in John’s Blackberry to communicate with our friends Ken and Shirley who have arrived from Gabriola to come sailing with us in Tonga. We phone the campground who give us directions that we never would have found otherwise. We do a fairly comfortable 2 bedroom house for the night complete with electric blankets!

Off to the North Island

Off to the North Island

Having booked our ferry tickets online at Donegal House we take a drive along the coastline up to Picton, the town that the ferry leaves from. The weather is still unsettled (a word we will come to loathe in Tonga) but it allows for streams of light through the clouds that light the waves from a back angle. The waves are immense and very powerful, which pleases the surfers that we see along the way. There are also seals in various places and finally some bird life.

We arrive in Picton with an hour to spare so we go to the grocery store for snacks. Our favorite snack for on the road is pretzels as they take the edge off but give us a bit of salt. Added bonus, everybody likes them. They are hard to find though and today I strike out. With total lack of exercise, the only vice we have had is L&P Soda (which is a lime based carbonated drink found only in NZ) and these huge bars of Cadbury chocolate. There is a crunchie type, Big Turk type, Fruit and Nut and Caramilk like one. We allow ourselves a few squares with lunch everyday, as lunch is usually some kind of sandwich on the road with Gherkins, sandwich meat and whole grain mustard and tomatoes.

We decide to go check in for the ferry, but , after getting a bit turned around and taking the long way around, we find we are booked on the Wellington to Picton ferry not the Picton to Wellington. She says she is sure they are full but to go back from whence we came (the getting lost part) and see. No Pain in trying, so we return to the main office and are immediately booked on today’s boat – time taken, about 10 minutes.

The seas are listed as heavy which is not a good sign for Cathy who hates boats on the ocean at the best of times. We spend the first hour of the trip in very protected waters in the Queen Charlotte Passage, but then they call everyone inside and we hit the open water of the Cook Strait. It is indeed very heavy with waves crashing over the bow. In one hour though, we reach the protected waters on the other side and glide along for another easy hour.

We arrive just as darkness is falling and now have to find the Top Ten in the dark and along the freeway. Our maps are good for the first bit but become a bit elusive as we near our target. It only takes one wrong turn to really mess us up as it is really hard to crack a Uball in Ruthie (as we would learn later). We do take one wrong turn but get lucky and pop out the other side right on the bridge we need to be on. 5 minutes later, just as it starts to rain, we are tucked nicely into the Top Ten.

We hit the communal kitchen and meet a great Kiwi who describes all of the adventures he’d had near Rotorua. I think he was a little lonely and he entertained us with his pictures for a while. It rained off and on all night.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Hanmer Springs and Kaikoura

This was the night that we realize they don’t have much in the way of blankets on the beds in NZ as every bed has an electric blanket! We head out the next day to a famous place called Hanmer Springs. There are hotsprings here and they have many different pools of differing temperatures. It is absolutely pouring rain while we are there, but the sunshades also act as rain shades.

We sleep in Ruthie and head out the next day to try to catch the whales in a place off the northeast coast of the South Island called Kaikoura. On our way out of town we find a great little woolshop and pick up a Merino wool sweater for my Dad and another great zip up sweater for John – the first thing other than masks that he has bought since Cambodia. I am navigator and take us on the most winding road we have been on yet. We arrive in Kaikoura about 11:30 for our 12:45 time but the seas are too rough for the whale watching.

We go for lunch at an Irish pub called Donegal House and there is a huge fire in the hearth and all kinds of old pictures of the original Irish family on the walls. We ask about rooms and get the winter rate that includes breakfast and free wireless internet. This is great news as David is now full bore into Physics and Cathy into her last bits of Math.

We have supper in front of the roaring fire with a DVD on the screen with a guy by the name of Danny O’Donnell singing all kinds of songs that my Dad has sung all of my life. A little karaoke is all we need. Dave and John finally get to have some lobster. It is horrendously expensive due to all of the limitations and quotas that have been introduced in the last 10 years here.

The next morning we dodge the resident peahen and her piles of poop and the ducks and stare in wonder at what this place would be like in the sunshine of summer. I am going to try to convince the Rice’s to come in the summer and stay here.

The next day our whale-watching is cancelled again, so we buy the great fleece-lined coats they have and head for the ferry for the North Island.

Franz Josef Glacier

The next day is a huge driving day where we travel for 10 hours from the town of Te Anau to the Franz Josef. Again, we leave the kids sleeping and spare them the twisting turning road on the way back to Queenstown. We continue on and stop at a lake for breakfast. They are big on quiches and pies for breakfast and we also manage some pancakes with whipped cream!

We arrive in glorious sunshine at the town of Franz Josef at about 3:30 and decide to reward ourselves with a hotel for the night. A look around, though, yields nothing very good for a family of 6. We go to the Top Ten campground and ask the manager about a little room like we have seen at all of the campgrounds we have been at. He hums and hahs and then shows us to a 3 bedroom 1100 sf house!! It is absolutely fantastic and gives us the chance to have a bit of our own space. There is a door dividing the sleeping areas (3 bedrooms sleeping for 9) from the living room too, so if anyone is up early they can read in quiet and not disturb anyone else. There is a bathroom with a bathtub too!

We book a hike on the glacier for the next day through the manager of the Top Ten and go to the grocery store for fixin’s for dinner. The highlight of the night, though, has to be the near double skunk in cribbage by John of me where I escape by a single point!!

The next morning brings a bit of cloud, and a final mark of 82% in English for David!! We are off to climb the glacier but John stays behind as he is now going under the knife this summer for his knee.

The rest of us are picked up by the typical adventure guide that seems to exist in these adventure-based towns throughut NZ. Dreadlocks and all. We go don all of the heavy wool socks and rain coats and are given a fanny pack with crampons in it. They drive us as far as they can and then we start walking up a fire road. 200 meters up we branch off into the forest and are completely engulfed in forest. It is easy to see how the Israeli girl perished near Queenstown a month before and they didn’t find her body for the entire month even though it was 60 meters from the hut. Soon we are on the moraine and walking by a river. We have to climb up ladders and ropes and over all kinds of crazy terrain in order to get to the actual glacier.

This glacier along with the Fox a few miles away and one in Patagonia are the only glaciers in the world in the tropics. 2 km later and we pause at the base to don our crampons. The guide is worried that Paul won’t be able to keep up, but very quickly figures that Paul is the least of his worries. There are other guides carving steps for us and it takes a while to get used to walking in the crampons. The ice is amazing and every shade of blue. NZ is in a drought now and that will affect the glacier 5 years from now. There are little rivulets of water everywhere and the sound is thunderous. We spend about 2 hours on the glacier and then retrace our steps back through the moraine and the ladders to the bus. John has a fabulous chicken stirfry ready for us at home.