Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Piha, NZ: An Ending Grace Note

In an effort to avoid Highway 1 on our southerly trip back to Auckland, we crossed over from the West Coast to the East at Wellsford, and then continued on Highway 16. Definitely a scenic route, but as the local we talked to said, not used much because it is curvy and hilly and slow. Coupled with warm and humid weather, we were used up by the time we reached the East Coast town of Helensville.

Recharged overnight, the next day had its odd shower, and it was still warm as we climbed and climbed into the Waitakere Ranges. The North Island is at its narrowest here, and the distance from Auckland to the West Coast is just 50 kilometers or so. But the topography gods managed to fit in an impressive ridge, where Auckland's elite could build their view homes and bike tourists could challenge themselves. When we saw the cell phone tower on top, we knew we had summited, and we dropped down the west side to our destination, the beach town of Piha.

Looking east from the high point of the Waitakere Range towards the Auckland metropolitan area.

Not knowing what to expect, we found a jewel of a place at Piha. A bay to itself, it is a favorite surf spot as laid back as any California beach town. No liquor store and just a couple of cafes and takeaway shops, the main town area is dominated by the domain campground. The managers are committed to keeping the prices low and the atmosphere quiet, so Kiwi families could still spend a holiday at the beach. Decidedly mellow, they burned incense in the reception area and there was a list of instructions to live by penned by the Dalai Lama hanging in the kitchen.  My favorite -- "Approach love and cooking with reckless abandon".

The manager just also happened to be the town medic. John stepped on a bee on his way back from the shower, and within 15 minutes it was swollen and red. He limped over to the office, and as she searched her bag for some medication, another camper came up. He happened to be a doctor from British Columbia, and within minutes John as administered a shot of antihistamine. Dumb luck turned into good fortune!

We spent a lovely day resting and walking on the black volcanic sand beach, postponing one more day our return to Auckland and the inevitable return home.

View of Piha from the high point just before the steep three kilometer drop ibnto the bay.

A Pukeko, a native flightless bird with enormous feet.

Low tide on the black sand beach.

Volcanic flows right on the beach trap the incoming surf.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Kerikeri, NZ: Dear Ladds

Dear Sandy, Josh, and Roger,

We brought only greetings from John's sister Diana, your friend and colleague when you lived in California nearly 20 years ago. Oh, and a bottle of wine, too, which went well with the lovely salmon dinner and your Mum's desserts and your good company, don't you think? Small tokens, really, for a couple of nights of warm Kiwi hospitality. Thank you!

You have a good life in your bright house with open land all around. It was so quiet the day we rested while you were at work -- the ocean breezes filtered nicely through the doors and windows of your house. After four months of travel, it was nice to have a couple of days away from holiday parks and the queries of other travelers.  We were sorry that we could not meet your daughter kelly, but tell her we enjoyed sleeping in her room with the pink walls and butterflies.

A warm little house with lots of open space -- our dream.

Give those trees the same care as your son, and they will grow tall and strong just like him!  What an achievement for him to be a member of the National inline hockey team.  Safe travels as you criss-cross the country for the games.

Several generations of trees to supply many a future Christmas.

And can we adopt Kelly's mum as our Kiwi mother? Not one, but TWO desserts! What a special lady -- we were so glad to meet her.

Sandy and her Mum

Ollie the dog cried when we left in the morning. He made us feel like part of the family, too.  Thanks for giving us two days of your very busy lives.  And when you come back to California to visit, someday soon we hope, we will see each other again!

Sandy, Josh, and Roger

Love, John and Doris


Monday, March 7, 2011

Northlands, NZ: A Gallery of Images

At Bayleys Beach on the West Coast of the North Island, fisherman can drive on the beach for long stretches.

Ferns of the Waipoua Kauri Park rainforest.

Typical rolling pastoral land of the Northland.

After a hard climb at the end of the day, a sweeping view of Hokianga Harbour near Opononi and approaching rain clouds was our reward.

Roadside art.

Ninety Mile Beach from the southern end.  You could drive your car to Cape Reinga at the northernmost tip of New Zealand along this beach.  Heavy rain and skinny tires discouraged us from trying.

"Reduce, Recycle, Reuse"

Mangrove lines many of the waterways at this latitude.

We followed an uphill gravel road for 15 kilometers in search of a DOC campground, and we found this unexpected path through the Kauri trees in Puketi Forest.

Sunset in Puketi Forest, an island of native rainforest in a sea of farmland.

Curious cows in the hills above Kerikeri.

Stellar ocean views in the Bay of Islands.

Oh, to be back in the Shire again!

A divine opportunity along the highway into Whangarei.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Waipoua Forest, NZ: Botanical Wonders

There is not many a vegetable that we do not like. At home we have the thing called the sweet potato, and its cousin the yam, both of which we do savor. But here in new Zealand there is the kumara, a purple-skinned variety that makes me get more than normally excited for dinner. And here in the Northland we went through the otherwise drab town of Dargaville. Not worthy of note, other than the fact that this is the kumara capital of New Zealand, where 70% of the country's crop is grown.

One jolly kumara on the side of the road.

Kumara fields forever!

And just to the north there is another botanical wonder. At one time, before the arrival of European settlers in the mid-19th century, the hills of the Northland were covered with thick forests. Immense Kauri trees grew here, some thousands of years old and tens of meters in height and girth. The trees grew tall and straight, and made good ship masts in the grand era of sailing ships. This native wood was used to make many things -- mail boxes, furniture -- but also was a major commodity for export for this young and developing country. The forest was stripped for pasture, and all that remains are a few pockets of this once great forest. Visiting the Waipoua Forest was the primary reason we came here to the Northland.

The feeling of seeing these trees was the same as standing next to the great Sequoia or Bristlecone Pine -- how insignificnt our time on is Earth in comparison to a tree that is two thousand years old.

Fungus growing on the bark of this Kauri tree.
Passing trough a section of one-lane road, narrowed to fit between two towering Kauri trees.
A grouping of trees known as the "Four Sisters".
The canopy of the trees support a whole ecosystem of other plants.
Te Matua Ngahere -- "Father of the Forest"  -- the second largest remaining Kauri with a girth of 16.4 meters and height of 29.9 meters. 

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Brynderwyn, NZ: By Boat, Train, and Bus

It was a short bike ride to the dock in Picton from our little cove in Queen Charlotte Sound. From here we used a series of alternate modes to get us to the far north of New Zealand.

The viewing deck on the ferry is better than any big-screen TV.

The ferry takes three hours to cross the channel to Wellington. I overheard a conversation between fellow passengers with the words "Christchurch" and "earthquake". It was not until we arrived at the hostel in Wellington that we learned that there had been a major aftershock the previous day while we were waiting out the rain in our little tent, removed from the news of the world. As a result, the availability of rooms was limited, and we did not have advance reservations. So John was assigned to a bunk in one dorm, and I was assigned to a bunk in another.

When I went to stash my belongings in my room, the other three occupants were not there, but open suitcases and clothing were strewn about. My stereotypical judgement was that, hum, these were not your typically tidy women. It was not until later in the evening, when John and I had said our goodnights and parted to our separate sleeping places that I actually met my roommates. I don't know who was more surprised, the guy wrapped in a towel or me, that I had been placed in an all-male dorm.

Due to the earthquake and the interruption of traveller's connections, the hostel was packed and the staff was trying to accomodate everyone. They filled all the rooms and even had people sleeping on the floor of the TV lounge. When I went to the front desk to inquire why I had been put in that room, I felt a bit chastised when I was reminded people in Christchurch were sleeping in school gymnasiums becuase their houses were no longer standing. So, being the modest type, I piled my things in a corner, went to bed, and rose before the dawn and slipped out before anyone else in the room woke up.

The earthquake dominated the media and conversation all around us. We sat that first night in the hostel and watched the televison coverage. We recognized many of the buildings that we had seen just 10 days before when we were in Christchurch, now crumbled and destroyed. But what made this aftershock different that the initial quake in September was that there was loss of life. This was just the first day after the event, so there were people still missing and trapped in the rubble. To see the hope and despair of the family members holding vigil brought us both to tears.

We spent one more night in Wellington (this time in the same room), and the next morning left the hostel before dawn to cycle to the train station. We boarded the Overlander train, and for the next 12 hours we rolled through green countryside, crossed over impossible trestles, and wound in circles up grades on our way to Auckland. We decided to skip cycling the south half of the North Island, and instead explore the region to the north of Auckland, known as the Northland (oddly enough), in our remaining month on the island. We spent two more nights in a hostel in Auckland, with a fruitful day searching for bike boxes for our return flight home. After traveling the last three months on the sparsely populated South Island, the bustle of Auckland was a bit overwhelming, and we were anxious to burn off those bowls of laksa and get biking again.

All aboard!
The landscape passes by very quickly in a train, as compared to our snail's pace on a bicycle.

Auckland and the surrounding suburban area occupy an isthmus at the top third of the North Island. It is a choke point, and there is no easy way to get past the urban area. Highway 1 is the main artery out of the city, and all our travel guides and conversations with other cyclists recommended that we not try and bike it. So we took a bus from Auckland city center to a roadside stop at the Swinging Cow Cafe, two hours north. It was a huge bus, like so many that have passed us on the road and sucked us into their wake. Our bikes were able to stand upright in the luggage compartments, still fully loaded with the panniers. The bus stopped just long enough for us to get off and claim our bikes, and off it went leaving only the smell of diesel behind.

A most colorful bus depot.

After four days of noise, relative chaos, and sad earthquake news, we were again standing on the side of the road, feeling like we had been teleported back to the green rolling hills of the Shire. We were safe, we were together, and we were happy.

Happy, happy, happy, to be self-propelled again!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Moetapu Bay, NZ: Goodbye, South Island

The Southern Alps are the major geographic feature of the South Island. This mountain range controls everything here -- weather, waterways, roadways, and the movement of people and their vehicles. So steep and impenetrable, there are really only three routes to cross over the range by our chosen means of travel -- Haast Pass, which we did from the West Coast. Arthur's Pass is in the middle and is the highest and most spectacular, renowned because of the train that crosses over from Christchurch to Greymouth. A road also follows this route, and we approached tentatively from the east with the full intent of getting to the pass, but chickened out when the weather turned wet and cold. The northernmost route goes over Lewis Pass, lower and gentler than the other options.

After we left Hanmer Springs we had a day of steep ups and downs that wore us out, so we camped just shy of Lewis Pass. The next morning was clear and bright, and after a couple of kilometers of up to wake us up, we had a the reward of a spectacular downhill. By the time we reached the river valley and turned north, a southerly wind pushed us the rest of the day into Murchison -- a 112 kilometer day. You need only two fingers to count the number of times we hit triple digits on our daily kilometer count on this tour.

A clear morning for our descent of Lewis Pass.

Murchison was like coming home, since we had passed through the town when we were heading to the West Coast. It was still just as warm and dry and quiet as the first time, so we stayed an extra day for quality internet time and ice cream indulgence. After that, we retraced our route along the Buller River to St Arnaud, the base for our Nelson Lakes tramp almost three months previous. Over another minor pass, and we were in new territory on a road that is a straight line to Blenheim.

The Wairau Valley was formed by a major fault that runs as straight as the road and the river alongside it. The valley is long and narrow with mountain peaks on either side. We were so inspired by the exhibit at the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre at Mt Cook, that John found a secondhand copy of his autobiography. So the night we camped in the heart of this valley alongside the braided Wairau River in the shadow of these mountains, John read how young Edmund, who was stationed with the Air Force in nearby Blenheim, developed a love of mountain climbing with the summiting of his first peak, Mt Tapuae-o-Uenuku. The past and the present were linked as the peak stood like a beacon from the very spot where we slept. Humbled we were, because Edmund would have two days off to tramp, and would ride his bike with a full backpack to the base of the peak, summit, camp, and hike down ride back to Blenheim the next day.

Big sky in Wairau Valley

Blenheim is another agricultural center, with wine grapes being the major crop. The town is populated this time of year with lots of foreign workers, from the Pacific Islands as well as European travelers on work visas earning money by picking fruit. We learned of a local farmer's market, and spent an enjoyable Sunday morning talking with the local farmers and tasting some of the best almonds, plums, blueberries, and olive oil grown in New Zealand. This market was definitely a local's event with kids running around and people just hanging around chatting. We stood out as both travelers and cyclists, which is a great opener to strike up a conversation with segment of the population not involved in the tourist industry. The couple behind Windsong Farms actually lived and taught skiing In Mammoth Lakes for several years -- small world!
Grapes coming to a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc near you soon.

Our last day on the South Island was spent sitting in our tent on a secluded cove in Queen Charlotte Sound. It rained from dawn to dusk. This was a walk-in DOC campground, and required descending a few scores of steps to get to beach level. We had carry our bikes and panniers in separate trips. The day we arrived was beautiful calm and blue skies. Our only company were local residents walking by for a late afternoon swim. But rain came in overnight, and since this was a rustic camp with no lounge to retreat to, we had no choice but to sit inside and read and do crossword puzzles. It was fun, and we didn't really want to leave the South Island anyway. So many of our rest days were spent waiting out the rain, that it seemed appropriate that the skies would weep on our last day, too.

Queen Charlotte Sound -- spectacular on a clear day.
Our secluded cove on Moetapu Bay the day we arrived.
It was a full moon, so the tide was very low when we arrived.  High tide in the middle of the night flooded the grass just a few feet from our tent.
What a difference 12 hours make -- rain trapped us in our tent all day.  Cooking is a challenge in the tent vestibule.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Hanmer Springs, NZ: Canterbury Tales

For two weeks we crossed the broad apron of land that lies east of the Southern Alps and extends to the South Pacific Ocean. It is generally flat farmland for miles and miles (or kilometers and kilometers). It makes for easy cycling if the wind is in your favor, and it makes for lackluster pictures when the days are overcast. But it is not without its surprises.

So our map had labeled a place labeled Rakaia Gorge. As we got closer, the wind began to blow harder in our face, and we climbed a long grade. Cresting over, to our amazement, we looked up a deep canyon carved by wide braided river. Northwesterly winds were channeled down the canyon, and were strong enough to kick up dust on barren soil. Fortunately, the road turned so the gale-force gusts were at our backs and we were pushed like by an invisible hand. Pushed through the aptly named town of Windwhistle, and back down to the flat plains.

Dropping into Rakaia Gorge.

So as we took the inland route across the plains, along the base of the mountains, there were more than one crossing of these great braided rivers.  And when we visited the museum in Christchurch, we learned that rivers of this type, that have massive flows down steep gradients, are unique features.  Alaska and Canada and the Himalayas have them, and those in New Zealand are spectacular examples.

We did a detour to the city of Christchurch.  For what reason, we are not sure, other than it is the largest city on the South Island, and we thought we should go.  After weeks of quiet rural roads, the traffic and the density of people were a bit overwhelming.  We spent one day visiting the botanical gardens and museum, surveying earthquake damage, and managing to go into a sugar coma from eating too much homemade German kuchen from the farmer's market.

Most buildings with obvious damage were old brick and stone structures, like this church.

In search of a secondhand bookstore, we were dismayed to see it was no longer there.  The whole block of brick buildings were condemned. 

Hagley Park is a treasure in the center of the city.
One of our best camps so far on the trip was at Balmoral Reserve, a rustic designated camping ground with trees, grass and toilets.  It was peaceful, for only $5 a night.  I left the bag with our breakfast food, including a couple of particularly aromatic bananas, in the vestibule of our tent when we went to sleep.  Somewhere in the deep darkness of night I heard some loud rustling, and I knew something was after our food.  Instinctively I unzipped the door and grabbed the bag, assuming my reaction would scare away the beast.  Once I had the bag inside, I touched something prickly next to it.  I thought it might be a pine cone, so I tried to pick it up.  It was way heavier than a pine cone should be.  And I realized it was a hedgehog, like so many we have seen flattened on the side of the road.  In my half-asleep state, I freaked, and shook John, and told him something alive was in here.  He shined his light, and there was the thing all curled up.  I wouldn't touch it, so my hero picked it up using his shoes as forceps and tossed it outside.  He made me give it a good kick to get it further away from the tent.  Our friend was not there the next morning, so I assume he was not scared to death, like I nearly was.

A hedgehog's view of our camping spot.
We left the Canterbury Plains via Hanmer Springs, a tourist mecca known for its thermal pools.  We didn't want to pay the $18 entrance fee, so we enjoyed a hot shower at the campground instead.  Equally as luxurious for us. 

Morning light on the way to Hanmer Srings as we leave the Canterbury Plains.  It is for days like this that we travel by bike.

Our last braided river, the Wakai River near Hanmer Springs.

This picture of an alpaca with a California surfer dude look has nothing to do with anything else in this post.  Sheep, we have learned, are not the only wool-bearing livestock in New Zealand.

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